Will Modi Be India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister?

By Sushil Aaron

Narendra Modi has masterminded the biggest election victory seen in India since Rajiv Gandhi swept to power in 1984. The outcome belies even the expectations of his vociferous enthusiasts.

Chief minister of Gujarat and Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi gestures as he speaks during a campaign rally in Kolkata. (AFP photo/Files)

The BJP has routed parties like Mayawati’s BSP and Lalu Prasad’s RJD that were expected to blunt Modi factor. Congress’s decimation is complete. Its national tally will be less than what the BJP is expected to get in UP and Bihar. Several Congress heavyweights who are familiar faces to voters and television viewers will be missing in Parliament. A new political elite is in town.

The specifics of this victory are yet unknown. The number crunching will follow. There will be competing arguments about factors behind the outcome. One view is that Modi manoeuvred himself into the imagination and expectations of millions of urbanising Indians, undercut traditional calculus of caste and projected strength and decisiveness in contrast to a Congress’ perceived weakness and ineffectiveness. He ran a brilliant, relentless campaign, helped along by seemingly inexhaustible financial resources, a media that couldn’t ignore him and the party machinery none could match, especially in the Hindi heartland.

There is a sobering countering view to this. The first-past-the-post Westminster system exaggerates the scale of victory, in that even a 35% vote share (which has a majority voting against it) hands the winner a lopsided share of seats in Parliament. Modi’s victory can largely be attributed to consolidation in BJP-ruled states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and decisive victories in UP, Bihar and Maharashtra, which made all the difference. Modi’s win in the latter three states, where the NDA is expected to get around 135 seats, will in time be attributed to a divided opposition, anti-incumbency against the local governments and implosion of the Congress. There has been no Modi wave in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Andhra, Orissa and Punjab.

But there is no doubt that this is a breakthrough election for BJP’s national reach and prospects. As analysts note, the party is expected to win seats in 21 states and 5 Union territories. It will likely get more seats than the CPM in West Bengal. And Modi is riding the crest of massive support in urban India, cutting across caste divisions.

What does this mean for the near future? We will now have a Prime Minister who has complete dominance over his party and government from the very outset of his reign. Jawaharlal Nehru had to contend with equals like Vallabhai Patel in his first term and Indira Gandhi emerged as a strong figure only after becoming the PM, following consolidation of party control and victory in the 1971 War. Rajiv Gandhi had a strong mandate, but was not a domineering figure at the moment of accession. Modi undoubtedly is.

It remains to be seen what he does with this degree of political authority. Will he choose to be more collegiate and cobble together an expansive NDA coalition to secure eventual control of the Rajya Sabha that he will need to legislate change? How will he handle the bruised egos within the party and the wider political class, who like millions of Indians, had no way of anticipating this outcome and didn’t kowtow in time? His decisions on Sushma Swaraj and LK Advani will be the most anticipated theatre in the days ahead and will set the tone for his leadership style.

Modi will want to make quick decision-making a hallmark of his government, after gaining a reputation for cutting through red-tape and creating a business-friendly climate. But there are many imponderables. Is revitalising the Indian economy, operating as it under local and global constraints, within the gift of one individual’s decision-making and the expertise he brings in? Are there enough spoils of state to keep all his backers happy? How will he balance interests of loyalists with other competing interests? How will he react to inevitable civil society pressures as he drives through a pro-business agenda?

More importantly, what matters most is how Mr Modi himself processes this victory. Will he see this as proof that a development narrative wedded to hardline Hindutva is a sure-fire winning combination in an urbanising young nation, especially after one has had a chance to wield state power? Or will he be attuned to the limited nature of any mandate in the Westminster system and be alert to the widespread anxiety among minorities and liberals that his victory generates. No Prime Minister (after Mrs Gandhi in the post-Emergency phase) has come to power with a sizeable section of Indian liberals arrayed against him. Modi can savour his moment but India needs strong inclusive rhetoric now as much as the technocratic fixes he believes in.

Sushil Aaron works at the Centre for Policy Research. These are his personal views.

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