India’s new leader faces old scars

BJP leader Narendra Modi gestures while speaking to supporters after his landslide victory.
BJP leader Narendra Modi gestures while speaking to supporters after his landslide victory.Getty Images

Friday morning, 2,500 kilograms of ladoo, an Indian sweet, were being unpacked at the headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or Indian Peoples’ Party. By late afternoon, it was clear that the party’s poster boy — 63-year-old Narendra Modi — would become India’s 14th Prime Minister. After a six-week electoral exercise wherein 814 million people voted — 66.38 per cent of the population — it was clear that for the first time in independent India’s history a party other than the Indian National Congress Party had won a sweeping majority. BJP was winning 282 of the 543 seats in the lower house of the Indian Parliament, defeating the Gandhi dynasty-led Congress party.

As the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, Modi has been known for bringing stupendous progress to the state through industrialization. A similar vision that he promised for the entire country went down well with India's growing middle class.

Through Friday, news channels rattled out the numbers as they were being counted on the electronic voting machines. An exuberant Modi had to struggle to hear his own voice while delivering a speech, as his supporters chanted his name. "I did not have the fortune of becoming the martyr to my country's freedom struggle. Now, we will live — for our motherland," he exalted. His speech was less about a vision for tomorrow; his words were gibes at Rahul Gandhi, Congress's candidate.


This election proved the success of effective advertising, and of branding himself as the candidate of "development." Modi himself represented two constituencies — one from a cosmopolitan city in Gujarat, and the other from the holy city of Varanasi. The party also capitalized on Hindu religious zeal; the idea of India as a Hindu nation was largely unchallenged during the campaign, with large numbers of youths — most of them first-time voters — embracing the religious nationalist message. BJP candidates defeated many incumbents who had performed their political duties diligently. All were swept in on Modi's coattails.

The investments to build the persona of the party's leader paid off. BJP's campaign cost more than Barack Obama's presidential campaign of 2012. In Modi's absence, holograms with his image greeted crowds at rallies. In his own state, he welcomed industrialists to set up plants, even when peoples' movements against acquisition of farmland shut them out in other states. Thus, the newspapers and economists credited Modi for turning around Gujarat's economy through industrialization. On the other hand, Congress's somewhat socialist agenda of lifting up the poor through various schemes — a campaign that has continued since the '70s and '80s when Rahul Gandhi's grandmother Indira was in power — was increasingly seen as undue favoritism to the poor. Indians living abroad are now contemplating a return to India because, under Modi's leadership, they believe India will have the opportunity to be on par with the West.


But those who did not vote for BJP fear that the Hindu saffron cloak will choke the country's secularism. The divisive line of this election was the one between remembering and ignoring the riots in Gujarat in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives, most of them Muslims. Modi did little to contain the carnage; voters, however, let him off the hook for his alleged involvement in "letting the Muslims die," as he was alleged to have said then. (The United States denied him a visa on those grounds in 2005.)

For aspirational middle-class Indians, the scars of the riots were ignored like a sneeze. And so was any news of Gujarat's high rate of malnutrition, infant mortality, displacement of people by large dams and industries, and incarceration of indigenous peoples who were forced off their lands to make way for the special economic zones that marked Gujarat's rapid industrialization. Somebody had to pay the price for development. In Gujarat, as in rest of India, the marginalized have borne that cost. Draconian laws kept dissidents behind bars.

In the last decade and especially in the run-up to the elections, Muslims have seen Modi as a constant reminder of their minority status within India. Yet, unlike other candidates, Modi never attempted to woo the country's roughly 176 million Muslims — he placed his bets on the surging middle class and its desperation to have him champion their dreams. As news of his win — and jokes about Congress's pitiful defeat — circulated, people began to list names of famous Muslims who ought to be heading to Pakistan, as Modi had once proclaimed in a speech. Perhaps what lies ahead for India is to see if these jokes subside lest they validate the insecurities of India's minorities, who are suddenly conscious of becoming the other in a Hindu-led rush to prosperity.


Priyanka Borpujari is a journalist based in Mumbai. She was the 2012-2013 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow.