Can Modi Heal India?
"India has won! Achche din aaney waley hain." With that tweet -- "India has won! Good times are coming" -- posted just after noon last Friday, the Indian politician Narendra Modi broadcast the dramatic news that left millions, not least his own supporters, reeling and instantly established the result of the largest election in history, one that marks a break with previous paradigms of Indian politics.
As 2014's election results poured in, it quickly became clear that Modi and his right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party weren't going to slip just past the majority mark of 272 seats in Parliament, as widely predicted by opinion polls, but were in fact headed for a smash win. In the end, the BJP finished with 282 seats -- 334 when its allies were figured in. Under India's first-past-the-post and multiparty system, the BJP's 31 percent vote share was enough for it to win 238 more seats than its closest rival, the Indian National Congress, which won 19 percent of the overall vote and only 44 seats. Modi, 63, will become the first prime minister of India to be born after independence when he takes office May 26.
The result was historic for many reasons. It was the first time in India's history that any party other than the Congress had won an absolute majority in Parliament, as well as the first time the BJP could lay claim to being a truly national party. It was also the first time that the Congress -- which ran a ragged campaign behind fourth-generation dynast Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate -- had taken fewer than 100 seats in Parliament. It was also the end of a three-decade-long era of fractured verdicts from the Indian voter and coalition governments in New Delhi, which gives Modi a freer hand to shape policy than any recent prime minister.
The result also pointed to the return of charismatic politics in India after the unshowy and often-uncommunicative rule of outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And it was the reward for the BJP and the most massive election blitzkrieg in living memory, one in which the Indian media couldn't help but act as a force multiplier for Modi's carefully calculated pro-development and "strong government" message.
Even so, there is certainly something to admire about a self-made man's rise from relative obscurity to the grandest honor in one of the world's largest and most diverse societies. Journalists were quick to compose encomiums to the victor. The prize for the most gushing rhapsody came from S. Prasannarajan, editor of the weekly magazine Open, which ran a cover that screamed "Triumph of the Will." Prasannarajan himself wrote that Modi "is the story of our time, a story in which the power of one man's will merges with the possibilities of a nation still dreaming."
Analyses of a sociological rather than slavish stripe, meanwhile, were often quite acute. "In several countries of Africa and Asia, the first generation of genteel post-colonial leaders and elites usually gave way to more angular native (or nativist) politicians who grasped popular hopes and fears more easily simply because they had lived these themselves," Ashok Malik wrote in the Hindustan Times. "India has been lucky and has landed on its feet. It has accomplished a similar change through the voting machine." As Santosh Desai observed in the Times of India, Indians from the emerging middle classes had rejected liberals' vision of India: "Narendra Modi has unified the cultural mainstream of India electorally. It is as if India is beginning again, this time driven by ideals of the dominant cultural mainstream. Potentially, this changes everything, and causes hope and dread of equal intensity."
There were many dissenting voices, too. "Was it an independent media or an extended arm of the Modi campaign that we saw ahead of the polls?" asked an editorial in the Economic and Political Weekly. Meanwhile, at the Caravan, Hartosh Singh Bal declared, "Never before in this country has a prime minister been elected so emphatically while being so unrepresentative of the minorities."
"Mr Modi and his supporters urge his critics to make a fresh beginning," Vinod Mehta wrote in the Hindustan Times. "All the discredited verities of caste, religion, community, language and region need to be binned. I agree. But for the discredited verities to be discarded, one has to start with a clean slate. Mr Modi's slate is not clean." In the same paper, Aakar Patel wondered whether Modi's promises of a smaller government were persuasive, as he had run an administration in Gujarat that concentrated power in his own hands. "He personally held Gujarat's ministries for home, industries, general administration, energy, petrochemicals, ports, mines and minerals," Patel wrote, adding that when Modi says he minimized government, "he means on the elected side, not the bureaucracy, which is what small government usually means."
Modi himself lost no time in summing up the meaning of his victory. A natural politician, he observed saltily in Hindi: "Earlier, to run a government, a coalition needed to be formed. Now there is no opposition. Now to form an opposition, there is need to form a coalition." He also won many hearts when, entering Parliament for the first time, he went down on his knees at the entrance of what he later called "the temple of Indian democracy."
"Today, I'm standing before you as the son of a poor man," he later told the newly elected legislators of his party. "This is the power of our constitution, which has given the power to the commonest of common people."
Less savory, though, was his decision to travel the day after his victory to his constituency, Varanasi, the ancient city of great religious significance for Hindus, and be anointed there in a ceremony full of religious symbolism on the banks of the river Ganga. Before that, he took part in a long Hindu rite, the rudra abhishek, so arcane that the Telegraph of Kolkata had to publish an explainer from a religious scholar.
In the wake of Modi's victory, there is also a need to address the idea broadcast by many of his supporters, including economist Surjit Bhalla, that the Indian electorate's ringing endorsement of Modi means an end to the questions about his fitness for office. "To the best of my knowledge," wrote Bhalla, "no individual in Indian or world history has been unjustly vilified as much as Modi has been."
Much of this "vilification" was brought upon Modi by none other than himself. Indians are well within their rights to question the character and conduct of a politician who has often resorted to inflammatory speeches with anti-Muslim overtones. And Modi has yet to make any gesture of reconciliation toward those citizens he let down in 2002 in the violence that was visited by right-wing Hindu groups upon Muslims under his watch as chief minister of Gujarat state, and even afterward, when he described relief camps for Muslims rendered homeless by the violence as "child-producing factories."
By dismissing criticisms as inconsequential or politically motivated, Modi's camp continues to contribute to the poisoned and polarized atmosphere of India's public sphere. Even in the future, it might not be able to take criticism in good faith.
Now that he is the most powerful man in India, it is to be hoped that Modi will not be so arrogant as to expect this gash in the social fabric to heal on its own, or through the process of "development." In this matter, the responsibility for taking the first step is his alone.
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