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Making sense of Modi’s mandate in India

Narendra Modi is sworn in as India's prime minister in New Delhi.

The results of the world’s largest election are in. A whopping 66.4 percent of 815 million eligible voters cast their ballots over the past six weeks in India. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won 284 seats in the Lok Sabha (“House of the People,” or lower house of India’s parliament), which according to Indian law allows it to form a government on its own.

The BJP is the lead political party in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The other NDA parties have taken an additional 55 seats in the election, giving the NDA an overwhelming mandate. The incumbent Congress party has been reduced to a mere 44 seats, losing 176 from the previous election in 2009.

What does this mean in substantive terms? India’s electoral system rewards winners handsomely. By almost doubling its share of the vote, the BJP has increased its share of seats by two and half. Normally, an Indian Prime Minister has to collaborate with allied parties who draw their support from various states in order to cobble together support for any actions at the federal level of government.

Not this time. Clearly the BJP government (with Narendra Modi as its prime minister) is in a position to enact any policies it wishes without having to offer other parties and leaders much in exchange.

What is PM Modi likely to do with his mandate? He ran on a platform that promised voters a decisive leadership style, in contrast to the weak and vacillating style of the previous Congress government. This result will certainly allow Mr. Modi to deliver that. He is well known for being a decisive and controlling manager in his home state of Gujarat, where he has served three terms as Chief Minister.

On economic policy, the BJP promised reforms but has been quite vague about what these reforms would be. This evasiveness didn’t stop the Indian stock market from registering its highest mark yet in response to the election result, a move that is not surprising since Modi is said to have the support of 90 percent of India’s CEOs.

Modi is also close to the heads of two major Indian corporate houses. But the BJP has historically been suspicious of free trade and it promotes Indian self-sufficiency as an economic philosophy. Perhaps the compromise will be the adoption of Indian mercantilism, a policy of supporting India’s corporations as they expand beyond the domestic market while trying to protect their privileges domestically.

The biggest qualms about a Modi administration have been related to social justice issues. His record on religious minorities and women is atrocious. Issues of economic redistribution, environmental protection and the guarantee of civil liberties are likely to take a back seat. As in previous BJP governments, this one is likely to attempt wholesale rewriting of education curricula to inject Hindu chauvinist ideologies into the mainstream. This win by the BJP is also a win for the wider Hindu nationalist movement of which it is a part.

Under the BJP, India is likely to take a hard line on two issues that Americans care about: Climate change and Afghanistan. In international discussions on climate change, the Indian position is likely to become unyielding and uncooperative as the party argues that those who have historically done the most polluting (the West) also carry the greatest burden to address climate change. In Afghanistan, the Indian effort to support the government militarily in its fight against the Taliban will likely intensify as U.S. troops leave this year. While this might seem welcome, it will probably spook Pakistan, which sees Afghanistan as a buffer against Indian influence, and it could lead to greater support for the Taliban by Pakistan.

This is a historic election in India, upending much of the conventional wisdom about the inevitability of weak federal governments and the rise of regional and caste-based parties. Its consequences will be enormous for India’s 1.2 billion citizens and for the rest of the world.

Nandini Deo, an assistant professor of political science at Lehigh, teaches courses in Comparative Politics, South Asian Politics, and Religion and Politics. She is working on two projects: Mobilizing Gender and Religion in India, a monograph which examines the Hindu nationalist movement and the Indian women’s movement over the course of the 20th century, and a study of the state of civil society and women’s NGOs in Afghanistan since 2001. Deo participates in the Globalization and Social Change Initiative and the Center for the Global Study of Islam at Lehigh. She is the coauthor, with Duncan McDuie-Ra, of The Politics of Collective Advocacy in India: Tools and Traps, which was published by Kumarian Press in 2011.


Story by Nandini Deo

Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2014

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