The South Asia Channel

India’s Political Earthquake

The verdict in India's 2014 general election was a political earthquake. Its tremors have upset old calculations, arcane caste arithmetic, and paternalistic assumptions about the Indian electorate. The emphatic victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, is without a doubt a seminal moment in the country's history. 

Some have called the results "revolutionary," while others see a "rightward swing." It might be too soon to impose definitive labels on the verdict, but certain trends are worth noting. Modi's massive mandate takes India into new political terrain, a place where the markers are different and unfamiliar. 

Modi has shredded the overarching narrative of post-independence India, one of subsidized existence cocooned by a fuzzy but heart-warming leftism. Clearly, his harsh critique of the existing order hit home with millions of first-time voters who came of age under a dysfunctional, distracted, and diffident Congress party-led government. Modi promised them an India that works and works hard. His message of "development first" was a dream they eagerly bought into.

Not since 1984 have Indian voters given a single party a majority in the parliament. The BJP's 282 seats in the 543-member lower house have technically freed Modi from the often-debilitating compulsions of coalition politics. Counting the partners, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has a total of 336 seats, a more-than-comfortable place from which to begin putting India back on track. With these figures, Modi won't have to create a "common minimum program" -- the unfortunate and unambitious title of the agreement the Congress party reached with its coalition partners in 2004 to lead the government. In fact, part of Modi's appeal was his maximalist agenda. He projected it with a firm confidence that added to the voter's confidence, shaken horribly by three straight years of bad economic news. 

Modi's personal rags-to-riches story also resonated with the electorate more than the Indian elite could have imagined. While the Delhi drawing rooms cringed at the thought of having a former tea seller as prime minister, the lesser mortals saw how his story could become theirs. The people nodded when he called Rahul Gandhi, his rival for the prime minister's job, a "shehzada," or prince. 

The voters' wholehearted rejection of India's premier political party since independence -- the Congress -- sends an important message to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has shaped and controlled the party for four generations. Unless is the party seriously introspects and reorganizes, it seems unlikely to resurrect itself for an increasingly aspirational electorate. The Indian youth's anger and impatience with the Congress Party was a huge factor in creating the "Modi wave," though Congress addressed it with only with the most banal of promises. 

The Congress relied on the stock tactics of identity politics, appealing to Muslim voters and other underprivileged groups. The shocker was that, this time, even they abandoned the grand old party in droves. The perception that the mother-son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi was aloof and disconnected from ordinary Indians became a reality. The faint smell of corruption around the family, particularly around Sonia's son-in-law, Robert Vadra, added to the disgust. 

The center-left space vacated by the Congress will likely be filled by the new kid on block -- the Aam Aadmi, or "Common Man's," party. Although it won only four seats, its leader Arvind Kejriwal challenged Modi as the main opponent in Varanasi, attracting an impressive group of leftist liberals and ordinary Hindus and Muslims. If the AAP does not die a slow death but continues to grow and evolve, it could be a force to contend with in the future, a house for the vehemently secular and liberal vote in India.

But for those who see this vote as India turning right wing, a few words of caution. If the vote was for Modi, it was also equally against the Congress party. Above all, it was a vote for getting India's house in order, for finally breaking out of the tiresome web of corruption, inflation, and excuses. After all, the Congress had 10 years at the helm, but its second term was mired in corruption scandals and policy paralysis. By contrast, Modi showcased a good governance record in Gujarat, a state he has ruled for three terms as chief minister.

Indians hope that Modi's economic model can work on a national scale. But their mandate should not be seen as an endorsement of a wholesale remaking of India into a Hindu state. Modi has stayed carefully away from giving that impression (although some of his party members have periodically gone off message). Besides, Indian institutions and opposition parties will keep a healthy pressure on the BJP to find the center -- the only way to govern a country as complex, vast, and diverse as India. 

That said, there are many, many Indians who remain conflicted about Modi because of his past and the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat that happened on his watch. He has worked hard to wash the taint away, but Muslims, understandably, remain worried. The question is whether Modi can control the BJP's lower functionaries, who may now feel empowered to swagger and provoke.

On the positive side, early analysis of the results shows that a significant percentage of Muslims voted for the BJP this time. Modi's attempt to address Muslims as Indians first and foremost seems to have worked. If Modi delivers on his promises, the lifting of the Muslim community into the Indian mainstream would be the best apology he could offer for the carnage of 2002.  

The burden of the mandate is no doubt heavy. Modi has to revive the Indian economy, create 15 million new jobs a year to feed the youth bulge, overhaul creaking infrastructure, build more schools and colleges, and keep Indians safe from terrorism. In short, he has to reconstruct the India story. He captured India's imagination, but now he must capture the reality. 

Seema Sirohi is a senior journalist specializing in foreign policy at the Gateway House Indian Council on Global Relations. Follow her on Twitter at @seemasirohi.