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BANA: New beginning in India as voters reject Gandhi dynasty

Narendra Modi’s elevation repudiates Congress party

- - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

It was India's "Arab Spring" of sorts. An unprecedented 540 million, or 66.4 percent of the country's 814 million eligible voters, booted out the discredited Indian National Congress (INC) party by giving the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a landslide mandate.

This was the largest electoral exercise in history. Votes were cast over a nine-phase, five-week period marked by a bitter contest between the two national parties. The BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, and his party crafted a campaign exploiting popular ire against the Congress party's massive corruption scandals, runaway inflation, mounting unemployment and what voters increasingly saw as the party's entrenched dynastic reign.

By capturing 282 seats, the BJP became the country's first political party on its own to win a decisive majority of the 543-seat lower house of Parliament since 1984. In turn, with 44 seats, the Congress, India's grand old party that has ruled for 54 of the 67 years since independence in 1947, suffered its greatest defeat ever, its previous lowest having been 114 in 1999.

The election dealt a humiliating blow to the mother-son duo at the head of the country's enduring Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, who choreographed their party's campaign. Party president Sonia Gandhi, the 63-year-old Italian-born widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and her 43-year-old son Rahul, the party vice president and prime ministerial aspirant, made it a personal contest. They essentially blamed Mr. Modi for the 2002 religious riots in the western state of Gujarat, where he has been chief minister since October 2001, and in class-conscious India dismissed him for his humble origins as a tea vendor.

Losing the prime ministership came as a real blow to Rahul Gandhi, whose father, Rajiv Gandhi; grandmother, Indira Gandhi; and great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, had all been prime ministers, ruling a cumulative 37 years. In an expectedly orchestrated stock-taking meeting of the Congress following its rout, the Gandhis offered to resign, taking responsibility for the debacle, but were convinced against it by their partisans.

Mr. Modi leveraged his modest background to his advantage in a country where the impoverished make up a large part of the population of 1.25 billion. He cast the Gandhis as elitist and lampooned their autocratic ways, including the way the family had relegated their own hand-picked 81-year-old prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to complete irrelevance during the past decade.

Mr. Modi also struck a chord with the poor, the middle classes and the rapidly growing segment of younger voters by promising to make economic development and good governance the immediate priorities of his government. Mindful of his detractors' sustained charges against him of being a communal leader who oversaw the brutalities against the Muslim community during the 2002 violence in Gujarat, he sought to reach out to all sectors of society in his campaign.

Charges against Mr. Modi stemming from the Gujarat riots wound their way to the Supreme Court, which acquitted him, eliminating what many saw as his major vulnerability. The riots — provoked by arson on a train that had killed 59 Hindu pilgrims — took a toll of 790 Muslims, apart from 254 Hindus, while 223 more people were reported missing and an additional 2,500 were injured.

Mr. Modi's victory showed that the electorate is more concerned with development and progress that voters were convinced had been retarded by the policy paralysis and political indifference characterizing Congress party dominance. Observers in the wake of the election are wondering how Mr. Modi's election will impact U.S.-India relations as the U.S. State Department had stuck to its revocation of Mr. Modi's U.S. visa in 2005 based on alleged human rights violations in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Soon after the results were declared, President Obama phoned Mr. Modi to congratulate him, and to invite him "to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time to further strengthen our bilateral relationship."

Several U.S. officials have already called on Mr. Modi, including the U.S. ambassador to India, Nancy Powell. Even as a state leader, he has forged credible ties with various countries in his pursuit of entrepreneurship in Gujarat.

The foreign policy he articulates draws on foreign direct investment, investment in infrastructure and manufacturing, and joint ventures, and he thinks Indian missions abroad should focus more on economic diplomacy. Among the countries he has visited as Gujarat's chief minister are China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Mr. Modi is credited with transforming Gujarat into one of India's frontline states during his unprecedented four successive terms as chief minister. His popularity and ability to connect with voters of all classes were reflected in huge margins in both the constituencies of Vadodara, in Gujarat, and the holiest Indian city of Varanasi (Benares) from which he ran. His "development" plank also for the first time sidelined caste-oriented campaigning that had characterized virtually all past Indian elections.

Mr. Modi is in a position to shape the new government as he intends, without the constraints that have hindered past coalitions. He has raised expectations of good governance, a reformed administration, clear policy, business-friendliness, poverty amelioration, revamped taxation and political will that will kick-start growth and manufacturing, streamline infrastructure and expand agriculture.

He and his party have promised much, and the degree to which they can deliver will be watched not only by Indians, but by observers the world over.

Sarosh Bana is executive editor of Business India.