Why you should care
Because the world’s biggest-ever election could change populism for good.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? Today, India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returned to power with a decisive majority in the country’s national elections, winning 301 out of 543 seats in Parliament’s lower house. The world’s largest-ever democratic exercise, the seven-phase marathon vote was effectively a presidential-style referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faced a fractured opposition. The first Indian prime minister to be reelected with a majority in 48 years, Modi is now the country’s most popular leader since Indira Gandhi in the 1960s and ’70s.
Why does it matter? India is the world’s fastest-growing major economy, with the youngest population among G20 nations and rising international clout. But throughout his first term, Modi was no stranger to controversy. Both Indian and global economists advised against his overnight ban on high-value currency notes, which dragged the economy down for two years. Meanwhile, his fervent nationalism and populism have coincided with a rise in hate crimes against Muslims and lower-caste Hindus, as well as attacks on churches. Will Modi change course, or will he interpret today’s victory as a vindication of his approach — and double down on it?
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Populist pied piper. The son of a tea seller, Modi has repeatedly contrasted his disadvantaged childhood with the privileged upbringing of Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party, whose father, grandmother (Indira Gandhi) and great-grandfather were all former prime ministers. That’s helped him tap into an aspirational India, where millions see Modi’s rise as a beacon of hope despite setbacks that might’ve spelled doom for most other democratic governments — such as the highest unemployment levels in 45 years. Modi has complemented his populism with a strong dose of nationalism, presenting himself as a muscular strong man capable of taking on archrival Pakistan.
Gandhi or his killer? Days after he took office in 2014, Modi invoked the name of Mahatma Gandhi — not as an icon of nonviolence as the world knows him but as the mascot for a national cleanliness drive. Yet several members of his party have publicly lauded the Hindu extremist who assassinated Gandhi for his espousal of secularism. Among them is Pragya Thakur, who faces charges of terror attacks on mosques but will now enter parliament after winning in these elections on a BJP ticket. Meanwhile, mobs have lynched at least 27 people, most of them Muslims, on suspicion of transporting beef since 2017. With today’s landslide win, Modi’s critics are worried about the future of India as a secular society.
Stronger global hand. The mandate will also strengthen Modi’s position in tricky international negotiations. India is locked in a tariff war with the U.S., which is also threatening sanctions unless New Delhi — Iran’s second-largest oil consumer — stops buying crude from Tehran. Still, India remains a critical cog in American efforts to counter a rising China, and Modi is expected to leverage that, even as he also maintains strong relations with Russia. Meanwhile, he’s expected to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping soon as the two Asian giants look to reset their frequently tense relationship following Modi’s win.
War or peace? In speeches throughout his campaign, Modi referred to his decision to send warplanes into Pakistan to bomb terrorist camps earlier this year after militants killed 40 Indian soldiers. “Modi went and killed them in their homes,” he told crowds. But with elections now over, he might actually be the best bet for peace between the nuclear-armed neighbors, many experts believe — a fact that Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan even acknowledged several weeks ago. On Thursday, Khan was quick to congratulate Modi. Like Richard Nixon’s dealings with China, Modi’s nationalist credentials are strong enough that he can afford to strike deals with Pakistan whereas other Indian leaders might shy away.
Reforms or voodoo economics? Many analysts believe the nationalist fever can last only so long and that Indians will eventually judge their leader on his economic performance. Modi has dismissed academic expertise — “I believe in hard work, not Harvard,” he once said — to rely instead on less qualified advisers. In 2014, he offered a Reaganesque promise of “minimum government, maximum governance.” But once in power, he steered clear of major economic reforms in sectors ranking from banking to labor. Under Modi, the Indian currency has slid by 50 percent against the dollar, hurting Indian exports. Now, assured of at least another five years in power — India has no term limits — the world will get to see whether Modi means what he said.
WHAT TO READ
How My Hometown Became the Epicenter of India’s Religious Politics, by Pragya Tiwari in The New York Times
“Having failed to deliver on his promise of economic development and jobs, Mr. Modi and his party have been seeking re-election by promising the Hindu majority that their interests will take precedence over those of the already disenfranchised Muslim minority.”
The Wave That Few Saw: How Modi Got the Country to Vote Against Lutyens Delhi’s Bogus Idea of India, by R. Jagannathan in Swarajya Magazine
“The national sweep that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) … is headed for emphatically reinforces the reality that in Hindu-majority India, you cannot seriously hope to win elections by being Hinduphobic or minoritarian.”
WHAT TO WATCH
BJP Supporters Celebrate Across Mumbai Lok Sabha Election Result 2019
“Modi’s development work and efforts to secure the country … this is the country’s gratitude for all of that.”
Watch on Midday India on YouTube:
Election Results: “India Wins Yet Again,” Tweets PM Modi After BJP’s Big Victory
“Together we grow; together we prosper; together we build a strong and inclusive India; India wins yet again.”
Watch on NDTV on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Watch the vote. For weeks, India’s opposition parties had argued that the BJP might try to hack electronic voting machines to tip the vote in its favor — though experts have concluded that’s not possible since the devices aren’t connected to the internet. But when the Supreme Court and India’s Election Commission dismissed their fears, these parties dispatched teams of volunteers who set up tents near counting centers, and, in hilarious scenes, used binoculars to keep watch over voting machines. It didn’t impact the results.