The world’s biggest election in history is over. India’s six weeks of voting came to an end on May 19, and the unenviable task of counting the hundreds of millions of votes commenced on Thursday. The campaign for the 17th Lok Sabha was seen by most as a referendum on the policies and person of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and he seems to have won handsomely. While no seats have been declared at post time, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Indian People’s Party (BJP) is leading in 291 seats, well more than the 272 needed for a majority.
No one did more to make the election a referendum on Modi than the Prime Minister himself. India is long accustomed to Westminster-style politics, yet Modi waged an American-style presidential campaign instead. A vote for the BJP was a vote for the country’s “watchman,” a term that broke India’s internet among his adoring supporters. A Valentine’s Day skirmish with Pakistan certainly helped maintain that image.
Modi’s tax, trade, banking, pension and regulatory reforms are proving popular. He’s also the most polarizing figure the country has seen since Indira Gandhi. His opponents claim he has sowed division within the country, whipping up furor against minorities, particularly India’s 200 million Muslims. They also blame him for the country’s 45-year high unemployment. Falling crop prices resulted in a farmers’ revolt and rising suicides. Yet, nationalism is a powerful potion around the world these days, one that seems to have trumped economic concerns.
Celebrations started early at BJP headquarters across the country, with fireworks being set off barely two hours after the beginning of the count. Also joining in the festivities were India’s financial markets. The prospect of a second term sent stock indices soaring. BSE SENSEX crossed the 40,000 mark early Thursday, while the NIFTY 50 broke 12,000. Both are record highs. The surges indicate a remarkable vote of confidence from the financial sector that Modi’s ambitious reforms, and near 7% annual growth rate, can continue.
One would think that five years removed from the worst election result in its history, the center-left Indian National Congress (INC) would have nowhere to go but up. However, India’s Grand Old Party, and leader Rahul Gandhi, appeared to make negligible gains, leading in only about a dozen more seats than they salvaged in their crushing 2014 defeat. The party that founded the state, supplied the first three prime ministers over thirty years, and shaped the secular vision of the country now finds itself in an existential crisis. The BBC attributes their vaporization to many gloomy causes, chief among them a lack of grassroots, and over-dependence on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
Plenty of challenges remain ahead for India’s powerful and polarizing Prime Minister. Chief among them will no doubt be easing tensions with his nuclear-armed neighbor. He will have to find a better way over the next five years of translating economic growth and development into employment, particularly for the world’s largest population of young people. Avoiding mistakes, like his disastrous 2016 demonetization, will also be critical. Structural issues, like infrastructure deficiencies and red tape, also persist. The good news for Modi is he’ll have the mandate, and the time, to bowl them out.