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India's right-wing BJP wins in landslide

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Narendra Modi Narendra Modi The world’s largest democracy has voted in unprecedented numbers for dramatic change, reports.

After five weeks of voting and more than 550-million votes cast across India, preliminary results suggest an historic rout for the ruling Indian National Congress party and an astonishing, though widely predicted, victory for Narendra Modi and the country’s right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

But even though Mr. Modi had long been considered the front-runner, the scale of his apparent victory is simply breathtaking: He has not only led his party to its best-ever electoral result, but in the process he has almost single-handedly wiped out the ruling Congress party across the subcontinent – a dramatic political upheaval that will redefine modern India and set the world’s second most populous nation on a strikingly new path.

Mr. Modi’s epochal accomplishment has also wrenched the country from the grasp of India’s dynastic Nehru-Gandhi family, which has ruled Congress – and the country – almost uninterrupted since independence from Great Britain.

With a note of triumph, Mr. Modi tweeted: ‘India has won!’ on Friday, as television channels aired footage of an emotional Mr. Modi meeting his mother and touching her feet, a traditional gesture when Hindus seek the blessings of an older relative. His mother then marked his forehead with vermilion and fed him sweets.

Mr. Modi and his party appeared set to win more than enough seats to form a majority government in the world’s largest democracy, ending a decade of rule by the center-left Congress party.

As results flooded in on Friday, senior Congress leaders conceded defeat. Party president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, the party vice-president who led the party into the elections, accepted both defeat and blame for the almost unbelievable scale of their organization’s defeat.

“As Congress vice-president, with all humility, I take responsibility for this,” Mr. Gandhi told reporters at the party headquarters, without taking any questions.

The results indicate that Indians have grown incredibly dissatisfied with the political status quo and a stagnating economy under the Congress party and have chosen to take the country down a starkly different path by electing a right-leaning, pro-business party that campaigned hard on economic development.

With 543 constituencies across India, the early results suggest that the BJP is likely to break through and reach a clear majority on its own – something no party has done since 1989 – ending an era of unstable governance in which parties have had to cobble together loose coalitions. With coalition allies, the BJP’s lead is even stronger – and it is likely that they could, perhaps, implement their agenda of economic reforms without the long periods of policy paralysis that hobbled the previous Congress-led coalition.

Mr. Modi, who has been chief minister of the prosperous state of Gujarat since 2002, campaigned on an economic platform that promised to deliver development after years of corruption under the Congress-led coalition government. His party’s sophisticated public relations machine emphasized his strong economic track record and pointed to scandals under the incumbent government.

Mr. Modi was still dogged on the campaign trail for refusing to apologize for anti-Muslim violence that occurred in Gujarat in 2002, for which he was denied a visa to visit the United States. The campaign was also far from clean, offending many Indians as politicians dragged the democratic debate through the gutters of class, caste and communal politics.

But Mr. Modi, a decisive politician who is known as a meticulous perfectionist, has led the BJP to a victory on a scale which the party has never seen. Despite his own history within right-wing Hindu organizations, and the fear many Indian Muslims feel about his candidacy, the early results suggest Mr. Modi has taken the BJP from a marginal standing, with support mainly in the north and west, to a truly national party – demolishing Congress and its hold on power as it went.

Voting began in India on April 7 and continued in staggered phases for five weeks until May 12, mainly because of the enormous security precautions and nearly unfathomable logistics. The Election Commission of India, which is widely respected internationally even though elections often involve illicit cash and vote-buying, set out to ensure that there would be ballot boxes within two kilometers of every voters – an unbelievable challenge in a country with villages scattered across mountain ranges and jungles.

One crucial subplot to the election has been the fate of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party led by Arvind Kejriwal, a fiery anti-corruption fighter who won an unexpected landslide in the New Delhi state elections late last year. Controversially, he quit the state government to take his party national in the general elections, astonishing observers who thought it might have been better to fight for his cause. But although his party appeared enormously popular with the urban poor in New Delhi, his political miscalculation appears to have been vast. The party has won just four seats nationally and failed to secure even one seat in New Delhi, where the BJP appeared set for a clean sweep of all seven seats. 

In Mr. Modi – a man many Muslims fear and distrust because of Hindu-Muslim tension in his home state of Gujarat – a lot of Indians see the promise of a brighter future for their country, which they feel has not yet met its enormous potential.

In Mr. Modi's home state of Gujarat, despite criticism of slipping on various social metrics such as female infanticide and literacy, Mr. Modi was successful in motivating government employees, approving projects and building infrastructure such as roads and irrigation projects. He has run nationally on a similar platform, pledging to help India's millions of farmers, build roads, and help get the machinery of government moving again – after it seized up during various corruption scandals, with bureaucrats afraid to approve projects lest they get arrested.

Domestic business people, who almost unanimously wanted Mr. Modi to win, will now expect the BJP to get to work in various areas such as tax and labour reform. Foreign investors will be looking to Mr. Modi to provide a stable, predictable environment for businesses operating in India. A lot of capital has been sitting on the sidelines recently, anticipating a victory for Mr. Modi. By some estimates, there are more than $100-billion (U.S.) in stalled projects across India. And part of Mr. Modi's agenda will be getting those projects approved, built and contributing the country's GDP growth – which has slowed dramatically in recent years, from highs above 10 per cent a few years ago to less than five per cent.

May 21 2014, 09:47

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