What a weekend for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On Saturday, March 11, the election results for five state legislative assembly contests came in, delivering the voters’ verdict. More than halfway through the Narendra Modi government’s term in office, and four months after a painful currency demonetization, voters delivered the BJP two resounding victories (Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand), two close calls that the party has converted into power (Goa and Manipur), and one defeat (Punjab).
The victories extend the party’s reach across most of north India, and cement its position as the nation’s dominant political force. Veteran political journalist Shekhar Gupta wrote that “tectonic change” was a phrase “too mild for a power shift that resets not just the political geography of India, but also its sociology, psychology and ideological pathologies.”
In the largest and most consequential state, Uttar Pradesh (UP)—a colossus of 200 million, larger than most countries in the world—the BJP was voted into power by a landslide: they received more than three-fourths of the assembly seats (312 of 403 seats). An election alliance between India’s Congress Party and the party controlling UP since 2012, the Samajwadi Party, proved a washout, as did the efforts of the Bahujan Samaj Party, a subordinate-caste-empowerment party that has previous held power in the state, and at one time held national ambitions.
The BJP did not nominate a chief ministerial candidate to serve as the “hometown” front face for the election in UP. Instead, it was Modi’s show. The BJP’s overwhelming victory in India’s largest state affirms Modi as India’s most gifted politician of his era. Observers have already proclaimed that he has locked up another term when national elections take place in 2019.
But the victory also, crucially, will slowly phase in a series of seat pickups beginning in 2018 in India’s upper house of parliament, since the upper house members are elected by each state’s legislative assembly. The BJP has not held a majority in the upper house and to date has struggled to pass some of the most contentious economic reform legislation it marched into government hoping to deliver. Over time the BJP can be expected to secure a majority there which will end its problems moving reforms requiring legislation.
The Uttarakhand result, albeit in a much smaller state—indeed, one that was carved out of UP in a reorganization back in 2000—helped amplify the scale of the BJP’s growing national support. The state has around ten million people, so fewer seats to elect to the upper house of parliament. It will only be able to help with one seat in 2018. Still, winning both Uttarakhand and UP so significantly contributed to the sense that Modi’s support has not diminished in the Hindi heartland, no matter the loss in Bihar back in 2015.
In the small states of Goa (population 1.8 million) and Manipur (2.7 million), the BJP did not attain an outright majority, but quickly managed to secure support from others (defectors from parties or supporters from smaller parties) to form the government in both. Neither state has the political throw weight of UP, but two more BJP-controlled governments, from the western coast to the high mountainous northeast, extends the BJP’s visual map across the breadth of India.
Looking to a New India
On Sunday, March 12, Prime Minister Modi spoke at a victory celebration at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi. Online, he used the occasion to debut a new campaign, complete with a hashtag (#IAmNewIndia) asking voters to pledge themselves in service of the vision of a “New India” by 2022 (India’s seventy-fifth year of independence).
The campaign’s list of causes map precisely onto the social issues Modi has championed, such as anti-corruption, a cashless economy, “Clean India,” drug-free India, women-led development, protecting nature, “Accessible India,” and peace, unity, and goodwill.
While the #IAmNewIndia campaign was surely in the works regardless of the state elections outcome, Modi’s victory speech [Hindi; 35 minutes] at the BJP headquarters used the celebratory occasion to amplify the “New India” message.
I was struck by the language he used throughout the speech. He thanked BJP workers and the country for the election results, but then shifted quickly to discuss the vision of the New India unfolding. This New India is the dream of India’s “youth power,” a New India that “fulfills the aspirations” of “women power.”
Unlike the rhetoric of other parties, which often recite a litany of welfare sops to show their utility to voters (here is an official video from one party showcasing the fans and food mixers it handed out to voters), Modi’s speech instead contained a passage about the New India representing a change in mentality. He said that if earlier the poor asked for something to be given to them, today they ask for the opportunity to do work themselves.
The interrelated themes of development and jobs have been central to Modi’s political language, and appear likely to become even more amplified through the New India campaign. Modi’s campaigns will need to start delivering jobs soon, however. His government’s big foreign economic policy initiative, the Make in India campaign to encourage foreign direct investment and manufacturing in India, has reeled in the pledges, but the payrolls do not yet reflect job creation.
India’s demographics require the creation of one million jobs per month to absorb new labor force entrants. According to the most recently available statistics, however, in 2015 only 135,000 new jobs were created in the organized/formal sector of the economy. Jobs will preoccupy the Indian government for the foreseeable future; to date voters have been willing to give the BJP a chance to deliver.
Does the “New India” tagline tell us anything about where India might be headed on the world stage? Modi’s Sunday speech didn’t explicitly address foreign policy. But I’d bet that the Indian government, now reassured of its strength for the remainder of its term and with wind in its sails looking at 2019, will press harder on the economic reforms it has struggled to enact, such as with land acquisition and labor law reforms. Both will help increase the country’s economic growth and job creation prospects.
I’d also bet that the New India will press forward internationally to secure a larger place for India in the world. Indian leaders—and this is not a new preoccupation, but one that has accelerated with Modi—seek recognition for the country as one among the world’s great powers. The New India wants the world to acknowledge its ascent and indeed its transformation, and find an appropriate reform process to ensure it a voice commensurate with its size and accomplishments. That means on the UN Security Council, the remaining nonproliferation regimes it seeks to join, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and others. Look for continued, perhaps even expanded, international diplomacy on this front as the confident New India ups its game.