Modi Set to Rule India as BJP Bet on One-Man Campaign Pays Off

India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party was divided a year ago, with Narendra Modi’s rise prompting its biggest ally to part ways. Now, it’s poised for India’s biggest election victory in three decades.

Exit polls project Modi’s party will secure its best result ever when votes are counted tomorrow, possibly making him the first Indian leader since 1984 to rule with a majority in parliament. They also show the ruling Congress party, led by the Gandhi political dynasty, headed for its worst defeat since India became an independent country 67 years ago.

Modi, 63, has turned around the BJP’s fortunes with a presidential-style campaign unseen before in the world’s largest democracy, addressing 437 rallies in person since September. While BJP doubters are now rallying behind him, opponents warn that Modi will exploit a clear mandate to further his party’s pro-Hindu agenda rather than focus on reviving Asia’s third-biggest economy.

“The party’s fortunes have undergone a stunning transformation under Modi’s leadership, despite the resistance from within the ranks,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author of “Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.” “If he wasn’t the leader, we would probably be heading for a hung parliament.”

551 Million Votes

India will start counting 551 million votes at 8 a.m. New Delhi time tomorrow in the biggest election ever held after nine rounds of voting that began on April 7. If no single party wins an outright majority in the nation of 1.2 billion people, President Pranab Mukherjee will then ask the largest party or strongest alliance to form a government, according to procedures established during previous elections.

The prospect of a BJP-led government has boosted Indian stocks to a record this week and propelled the rupee to a nine-month high. Modi’s party has pledged measures to tackle Asia’s second-fastest inflation and revive foreign investment in all sectors except for multi-brand retailing.

Modi called for unity on May 12, after six exit polls showed the BJP-led bloc winning 249 to 340 seats, with 272 needed for a majority. The Congress party and its allies, in power for the past decade, are projected to take 70 to 148 seats. In 2009, the Congress alliance won 260 seats and the BJP group took 160.

Since Modi was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September, he has traveled more than 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) and appeared at thousands of events, according to the party. He has used holograms to appear at another 1,300 events in a move to attract 100 million first-time voters.

Record Turnout

Turnout averaged a record 66.4 percent, the Election Commission of India said, topping the previous high of 64 percent in the 1984 vote, which occurred in the wake of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

“This is the first time in an Indian election I have seen one person dominate campaigning like this,” said A.K. Verma, a political analyst at Christ Church College in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. “Modi has been given complete control over how to run the party’s campaign.”

A year ago, the party was caught up in an internal struggle over who should lead the campaign. Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat state since 2001, had seen his fortunes rise on the back of stronger-than-average economic growth in the state even while he fought off accusations that he failed to curb 2002 riots that killed 1,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Internal Divisions

Modi has repeatedly denied the accusations and a Supreme Court-appointed panel found no evidence he gave orders that prevented assistance from reaching those being attacked.

Party founder Lal Krishna Advani offered to resign from the BJP a day after it appointed Modi to head the election campaign. The Janata Dal (United), the BJP’s biggest ally in parliament, severed the tie-up over its aversion to Modi’s growing power.

The JD(U), based in Bihar, is now projected to lose half its seats, while the BJP’s tally in the state is forecast to double, exit polls showed. The party has no regrets about cutting relations with the BJP, leader J.C. Tyagi said.

“We were with the BJP for a long time when it had leaders who were tolerant, personable and forward looking,” Tyagi said by phone yesterday, adding that it would be “impossible” to work with Modi.

This week a leading BJP figure acknowledged the uncertainty in the party over Modi. Arun Jaitley, the BJP’s leader in the upper house and a key candidate for finance minister, said in an e-mailed statement that the party’s recent surge in the polls had justified the decision to elevate Modi.

‘Many Hurdles’

“A legitimate question arose in the public mind whether the BJP can put its house in order and decide on who its eventual leader would be,” Jaitley said this week, adding that the party overcame “many hurdles” to name Modi as its candidate. “The high point of this election was the energy displayed by Modi.”

Polls show the opposition attacks on Modi haven’t resonated. Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress party, last month described Modi as a “dangerous combination of religious fanaticism, politics and money.” She also warned that an opposition victory would imperil the “very heart and soul” of India as a pluralistic mix of religions and cultures.

Modi has dismissed concerns that he’d be an autocratic leader in interviews given over the past month, citing the BJP’s alliance with several dozen parties. Most of those parties currently have no lawmakers in parliament.

‘Team Player’

“I am a team player and I haven’t wasted my time doing such things ever in life,” Modi told TV9 television channel on April 15, when asked if he had imposed his will on the BJP in selecting candidates for the general election.

While Modi’s focus on leadership as a key campaign issue paid off, running Gujarat with a comfortable majority means he has no experience leading a coalition if the BJP needs partners to govern, according to Suhas Palshikar, a professor of politics at the University of Pune.

“He will have to negotiate and make compromises and accommodate various interests while heading a coalition,” Palshikar said. “That’s a challenge and something that is untested.”

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