As India Starts Voting, Will Modi End Up on Top?

BJP supporters during an election campaign rally in Gurgaon, India on April 3 Photograph by Parveen Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

If Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party gains enough votes to put him in office as prime minister of India, two things are certain: The markets will rise, and many of the country’s Muslims will be more nervous than they were the day before.

The world’s largest democratic elections are here, and the political season is getting loud in India. From April 7 to May 121 about 815 million Indians will be eligible to vote, more than twice the total population of the U.S. Befitting the enormity of the exercise, the outcome is expected to have profound implications for the world’s second-most populous nation. There seems to be no question that the ruling Congress Party will lose badly, with little chance for its handsome, uncharismatic 43-year-old campaign leader, Rahul Gandhi, whose family has dominated the party and Indian politics for more than six decades.

The issue at hand is not about the BJP getting the most votes—it will—but whether Modi’s party will be in a position to form a majority coalition easily in the 545-seat lower house. If it does, Modi is in.

An item at the New York Times India Ink blog noted that “Mr. Modi’s power consolidation over the party follows his record in Gujarat, where he has been chief minister for more than 12 years. In his home state, Mr. Modi has sidelined the entire senior leadership of the party and effectively rendered them politically irrelevant. Using his near-unchallenged authority in the state, Mr. Modi has not allowed any other leader from his own party to gain prominence.” The prevailing narratives about what Modi’s top-down style would mean at the national level leave almost no middle ground: Either he is a pro-growth leader who will bring strong leadership the country desperately needs to get back on track, or he’s a dangerous nationalist who entertains dog-whistle messaging to Hindu nationalists2 and, at the very least, failed to stop deadly riots in 2002 that killed about 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the state he rules as chief minister.

As Satish Misra, an analyst in New Delhi who has covered elections for more than three decades, recently told my colleague in New Delhi: “This election has the potential to radically alter the character and direction of the country.” Each recent day in Indian politics has brought a fresh reminder of how divergent the views are about Modi. An analyst report from Goldman Sachs told readers that “Equity investors tend to view the BJP as business-friendly, and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi as an agent of change.”3 In a piece that caused considerable online debate, the Economist said “it would be wrong for a man who has thrived on division to become prime minister of a country as fissile as India.”4

A colleague in Mumbai observed, “The world’s most-populous democracy has made India’s 1.2 billion people less poor. It has also made them more ambitious.” Where those ambitions might lead is not at all clear.

1. Results are to be announced on May 16. A color-coded map of voting dates, which will make the complexity of the effort more apparent the longer you stare at it, is here.
2. On the his thoughts about the 2002 riots, he observed last year: “If a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not?”
3. In anticipation of Modi coming out on top, India’s main stock indexes have been up, as has the rupee.
4. The comments section on that piece turned lively.

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