It was India’s “Arab Spring” of sorts.
An unprecedented 540 million, or 66.38 percent, of the country’s 814 million eligible voters booted out the discredited Indian National Congress (INC) party by giving the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a landslide mandate.
This largest electoral exercise in history, costing $5.2 billion and spanning a nine-phase five-week voting schedule, was marked by a bitter contest between the two national parties.
Helmed by the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee, Narendra Modi, the opposition party crafted a campaign that capitalized on the popular ire against the Congress for its massive corruption scandals, runaway inflation, mounting unemployment and its entrenched dynastic reign. Corruption alone is estimated to pare 0.5 percent off India’s GDP every year.
With a tally of 282 seats, the BJP became the country’s first political party to have on its own won a decisive majority of the 543 seats of the Lower House of Parliament in any general election since 1984. In turn, with 44 seats, the Congress, India’s grand old party that has ruled for 54 of the 67 years since independence in 1947, was mauled to its worst ever count, its previous lowest having been 114 in 1999.
The Congress’s capitulation humiliated particularly the mother-son duo of the country’s enduring Nehru- Gandhi dynasty who choreographed and stewarded their party’s campaign. Party president Sonia Gandhi, the 63-year-old Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and her 43-year-old son Rahul, the party vice president and prime ministerial aspirant, made it a personal contest. They raised fears over what they termed the divisive Hindu nationalist policies of the BJP and demeaned Modi for the 2002 religious riots in the western state of Gujarat where he has been chief minister since October 2001. They and their party colleagues also reviled him for his humble origins as a tea vendor.
While the Congress rout denied Rahul Gandhi the prime ministership, his father Rajiv Gandhi, grandmother, Indira Gandhi, and great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, had all been prime ministers, ruling a cumulative 37 years.
Modi, who is Sonia Gandhi’s age, leveraged his modest background to his advantage in a country where the impoverished comprise a large part of the population of 1.25 billion. He cast the Gandhis as elitist and found a ready response from the electorate when he lampooned their autocratic functioning, having relegated 81-yearold Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to complete inconsequence during the two consecutive five-year terms of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
He struck a chord with the poor, middle classes and the burgeoning youth by making development and good governance the immediate priorities of his government. Mindful of his detractors’ sustained charges against him of being a communal leader who oversaw the brutalities against the Muslim community during the 2002 violence in Gujarat, he sought to reach out to all sections of society in his campaigning.
The case against Modi on the Gujarat riots wound its way to the Supreme Court, which acquitted him as it did not find sufficient evidence for a conviction.
The riots, which were a backlash to an incident of arson on a train at Godhra in Gujarat that killed 59 Hindu pilgrims, took a toll of 790 Muslims, and 254 Hindus.
The massive mandate for Modi showed that the electorate was more concerned about development and progress that had been retarded by policy paralysis and political indifference that had characterized the UPA’s rule.
While the UPA won 60 seats, including the Congress’s 44, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) bagged 344, including the BJP’s 282.
Modi’s elevation also turned Washington around after having revoked Modi’s US visa in 2005 on the ground of alleged human rights violations in the 2002 Gujarat riots. After the results were declared, US President Barack Obama phoned Modi to congratulate him, and to invite him “to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time to further strengthen our bilateral relationship.”
The State Department too mentioned in a statement: “The prime minister of India will be welcomed to the United States. As head of government, Mr. Modi would be eligible for an A-1 visa.”
Among other world leaders who congratulated him on his triumph were Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Nawaz Sharif, prime minister of neighboring Pakistan that has had intractable disputes with India.
The new BJP government is tentatively scheduled to be sworn in on 21 May in New Delhi. The mandate provides Modi the scope to shape his government as he intends, without the constraints that have hindered past coalitions. He has raised expectations of good governance, a reformed administration, clear policy, business- friendliness, poverty amelioration, revamped taxation and political will that will kickstart growth and manufacturing, streamline infrastructure, and expand agriculture.
If he has been able to achieve what he has since helping his father out as a child in selling tea from a roadside stall, people feel he is poised to achieve that much more.
The author is executive editor of Business India.