India’s Narendra Modi hails victory before chanting crowd

‘We have the capacity to fulfil the common man’s aspirations’, says PM-elect

Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is greeted by huge garland. Photograph : Divykant Solanki/EPA

Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is greeted by huge garland. Photograph : Divykant Solanki/EPA

Fri, May 16, 2014, 20:41

India’s opposition leader, Narendra Modi, swept into power as prime minister-elect today, as voters delivered a crushing verdict on the corruption scandals and flagging economic growth that have plagued their country in recent years.

In a victory speech in Vadodara, the city in Gujarat state where he won his own parliamentary seat in a landslide, Mr Modi addressed a wild, chanting crowd shortly after the Indian National Congress, which has controlled India’s government for nearly all of its postcolonial history, conceded defeat.

“Brothers and sisters, you have faith in me, and I have faith in you,” Mr Modi said, in remarks that were interrupted several times by the crowd chanting his name. “We have the capacity to fulfil the common man’s aspirations.”

The contours of the victory by Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the defeat of the Congress party became clear even before election officials finished counting the 550 million votes cast in the five-week general elections.

After two hours of counting, the BJP was assured of winning more than 272 seats, enough to form a government without brokering a coalition deal with any of India’s fractious regional leaders.

That would give Mr Modi the strongest mandate of any Indian leader since Rajiv Gandhi took office in 1984, riding the wave of sympathy that followed the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi.

The celebrations of Mr Modi’s triumph began while the counting was still underway. Drummers, stilt-walkers and women in colourful saris converged at BJP headquarters in Delhi, where party workers had laid out 100,000 laddoos, the ball-shaped sweets that are ubiquitous at Indian celebrations.

Surinder Singh Tiwana, a 40-year-old lawyer, was among the revellers. “I can equate my jubilation today, probably, to my mother’s on the day I was born,” Tiwana said. “This is a huge change for our country, a change of guard. A billion-plus people have announced their mandate in no uncertain terms. They have voted for a progressive, stable government.”

Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent to the political dynasty that has formed the Congress party’s backbone, appeared to have only narrowly won re-election today in his home constituency, a stronghold that he carried by more than 300,000 votes in 2009.

In a humiliation for Mr Gandhi (43) a group of workers gathered around party headquarters in the capital city, chanting “Bring Priyanka, Save Congress,” a reference to his younger sister, who is seen as a more charismatic politician.

Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a Congress spokesman, conceded that his party had been defeated. “If the leads are correct, the results are conclusive,” he said in a telephone interview.

Another party spokesman, Randeep Singh Surjewala, also confirmed the loss. “We humbly accept the verdict of the people of India, ” he said. “We shall continue to play with rigor the role of a constructive and meaningful opposition - the role that the people of India have assigned to us.”

The elections came during a period of rapid transition in Indian society, as urbanization and economic growth break down generations-old voting patterns. With his conservative ideology and steely style of leadership, Mr Modi, who came from a humble background and rose through the ranks of a Hindu nationalist group, will prove a stark departure from his predecessors in that office.

During the victory rally, Mr Modi referred to people born after British rule ended in 1947, saying they never had the “opportunity” to die or to go to jail to fight colonialism. “We did not die for independence, but we will live for good governance.”

“This is the first time people who were born in independent India have played a decisive role in the election,” Mr Modi said. In his speech, Mr Modi hinted at expectations of political longevity, saying that he had heard even small children using the slogan from his campaign that meant it was his turn to govern.

“They will be coming to take part in elections after 15-16 years,” he said. “We are preparing the new generation also.”

Mr Modi is a regional leader - only the second ever to take the prime minister’s seat - known for maintaining tight control over the bureaucracy and political system in Gujarat, the state he has led for 13 years.

His image as a stern, disciplined leader attracted throngs of voters who hope that he will crack down on corruption, jump-start India’s flagging economy and create manufacturing jobs.

But his reputation also worries many people. He is blamed by many of India’s Muslims for failing to stop bloody religious riots that raged through his home state in 2002, leaving more than 1,000 people dead. Others fear he will try to quash dissent and centralize authority in a capital that has long been dominated by the Indian National Congress and the liberal internationalists who support it.

“He is very much the man who came from nowhere,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a journalist who supports Mr Modi. “There is a great deal of nervousness that the old establishment which ruled, that it will somehow be threatened. That may not be a bad idea, in terms of encouraging a greater deal of social mobility.”

“I think over all we are going to see a churning process,” he added. Last summer, when Modi’s campaigners insisted that the BJP could win the 272 seats necessary to form a government, the ambition seemed far-fetched. After a decade in power, Congress had succeeded in introducing a package of generous new welfare programs for poor and rural Indians, who still make up the majority of the electorate. Congress and its allies had a proven track record of campaigning in India’s villages, in contrast to the BJP, which has long been seen as a party of urban traders.

But Mr Modi seemed to benefit from changes in the electorate. Nearly 100 million new voters were registered ahead of this vote, including an influx of young people, and turnout broke previous records, hitting 66.4 percent. Compared with their elders, these young voters were unmoved by the memory of the Gujarat riots, which had prompted many Western governments, including the United States, to impose visa bans on Modi. They also proved far less emotionally bound to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has dominated the Congress party since independence.

Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express, a daily newspaper, called them “post-ideological Indians.” “These people are born after Indira Gandhi’s assassination,” he said. “For a lot of them, the 2002 riots are not even a faint blur. What is imprinted on their memory is five years of nongovernance, and a massive loss of white-collar jobs. Once you have gotten used to 7 percent growth, to go down to 4.5 is a real recession.”

The Congress-led government has often seemed rudderless in its second term. Its prime minister, Manmohan Singh, a distinguished economist, was a barely audible figure on the national stage, and often appeared subordinated to the party’s president, Sonia Gandhi, who was setting the stage for her son, Rahul, to take over.

The party’s leaders responded slowly, if at all, to bursts of social media-driven street activism that coalesced around the issue of corruption, and after a brutal gang rape that shook Delhi in 2012. The party’s presumed prime ministerial candidate, Gandhi, was a stilted campaigner who always appeared a reluctant leader. In the final stage of the campaign, he ceded the spotlight to his sister, Priyanka.

In the end, Mr Modi’s victory will be seen largely as a function of his opponents’ weakness, said the historian Ramachandra Guha. “The context here is the opposition: His rival is an heir apparent who is a bad orator, unwilling to take administrative responsibility,” he said. Although Congress has, in the past, regularly returned to power after being voted out, Guha said he thought the dynasty’s younger generation might have trouble regrouping.

“The larger sociological shift is that Indian society is becoming more democratic and less feudal, less deferential to family privilege,” he said. “It’s possible that Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi cannot revive Congress, because India has moved on.”

New York Times