In Brief

Modi’s Thumping Mandate—but for What?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party resoundingly won the general election following a divisive campaign, but it is not yet clear how the results should be interpreted.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just led his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to an overwhelming victory. The Election Commission of India’s data shows that the BJP won 303 seats. This gives the BJP a single-party majority for a second term running, and it leaves the opposition fractured and enfeebled.

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In the 2014 general election, Modi led the BJP with a platform focused on economic growth, good governance, and job creation. This year, following tensions with Pakistan, the BJP featured national security prominently, and economic growth less so. Its campaign included divisive, anti-Muslim messaging from senior BJP leaders, including a candidate facing trial on terrorism charges who praised Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin. The total indicates a massive mandate, but for what is unclear.   

What Did Indian Citizens Vote For?

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In the days and weeks ahead, political scientists and journalists will pore over the results to elicit meaning. Modi was not able to tout an economic transformation fulfilling his 2014 promises; while India’s economic growth looks good relative to to other major economies (at around 7.3 percent), unemployment is at a forty-five-year high and farmers are under economic stress.

67 percent
Voter turnout

The BJP’s landslide raises many questions about the party’s appeal. Did citizens vote for Modi because he represents a strong response to terrorism from Pakistan? Did they vote to give the BJP five more years to deliver economically? Do they approve of Modi’s “strongman” style? Do they like his reputation for being incorruptible, in contrast to that of the previous government? Maybe they voted for Modi because his many development projects—Clean India, cooking gas for women, financial inclusion, toilet building, roads and highways, and so many others—have tangibly improved people’s lives. They may also identify with his stronger pivot to Hindu identity, even at the cost of the country’s secular tradition. Or, not least, the vote for the BJP may in part illustrate dislike for the other options.

Feeble Opposition

One thing seems clear: voters rebuked the Indian National Congress. The party, which dominated Indian politics for much of the country’s history since independence, stands to hold less than 10 percent of the seats in the lower house. Its fifty-two seats mark a slight uptick from forty-four in the 2014 election, but still leave it with just a marginal presence. Congress President Rahul Gandhi lost his family’s traditional seat, in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. (Gandhi did prevail in a second constituency, in Kerala, and so will remain in Parliament.)

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Moreover, the Grand Alliance, formed by twenty-odd parties to unseat the BJP, fared poorly. Most of these parties are dominant only in a single state, or two at best, so they allied to try to prevent a vote split across many parties. It didn’t persuade voters.

What Comes Next?

After Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, which, according to some reports, could come as soon as May 30, the new government will have to hustle to develop a budget. It’s déjà vu all over again: Modi came to power in 2014 amid an economic downturn, and he must again focus on reviving the economy. But this time he cannot blame another party for recent developments.

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Narendra Modi speaks at the BJP party headquarters in New Delhi, India.
Narendra Modi speaks at the BJP party headquarters in New Delhi, India. Atul Loke/Getty Images

In his second term, Modi will need to address the urgent problems of agrarian distress, which affects hundreds of millions; unemployment at peak levels; delayed recovery from demonetization; and the still-unresolved banking crisis, which has resulted in stagnating domestic investment. Economic recovery matters for India’s global power: its emergence as a major global market, its ability to modernize its military, and its capacity to step up diplomacy and foreign assistance—important in a Belt and Road era.

National security issues will stay high on the agenda. Tensions with Pakistan have quieted for now, but the Easter terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka, like the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Bangladesh, are a reminder that the self-proclaimed Islamic State remains lethal, and that South Asia is on the group’s agenda. Another regional security challenge for India will be managing its interests in Afghanistan amid U.S. negotiations with the Taliban.

Finally, the divisiveness of this election raises the questions of whether India will be able to heal its cleavages or more severe polarization has taken hold for the forseeable future, and to what extent secularism will still have a place in the new India.

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