After the staggering task of polling the Indian nation, the outcome has surprised no one, except perhaps the scale of the defeat dealt by BJP and Narendra Modi on the incumbent Congress party. This marks the first time in the history of the Indian republic that a non-Congress party has won a simple majority, and is undoubtedly a turning point for the country. The weight of the nation’s hopes now essentially rest on one man’s shoulders, and there is no doubt that he faces an uphill struggle.
The Modi Factor
The turnout in these elections was higher than any since 1984, with an incredible 551 million Indians registering their vote.[i] BJP achieved landslide victories in several states such as Rajasthan, managed to retain states such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and landed surprise victories in Karnataka and Assam, which has historically been a Congress stronghold.[ii] Nobody predicted the margin of their victory, which begs the question; how did they do it?
Undoubtedly Modi himself played a key role, portraying a Nixonian image of a man of the people representing the silent majority; infinitely more identifiable and accessible than the Crown Prince Gandhi. However, his election also reflects a cultural shift within India – a backlash against the morally superior liberalism cynically espoused by the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has served to alienate vast swathes of the Indian population.[iii] Although Modi’s proactive, pro-development message is appealing, his resounding victory reflects, more than anything, a deep fatigue with an apathetic, barely functional political class. In short, these elections results are as much an indication of support for Modi, as they are a wholesale rejection of Congress; a vote against the endless cycle of corruption, political paralysis and failure.[iv] His premiership comes as the result of a radically changed country, where jobs and development are more likely to swing votes than religion and caste, and where a complete and utter lack of leadership has enabled the ambitious Chief Minister to fill the vacuum.[v]
The Road Ahead
In the domestic sphere, leadership will be crucial in his first 100 days of office, and so far things have gone according to plan. On May 29th Modi outlined the top ten priorities for his government, which included building confidence in the bureaucracy, prioritising education, health and infrastructure, and improving transparency in government. The finance ministry is reportedly drawing up a liberal foreign investment framework, which will enable at least 49 percent investment in all sectors, excluding certain strategic ones, and allows a minimum of 49 percent automatic investment, bypassing the lengthy process of government approval.[vi] Railways, e-commerce and media are among the sectors expected to benefit from this new round of liberalisation. Encouragingly, first steps have also been taken addressing the rampant nepotism in the system – a memo was circulated amongst ministers laying out rules regarding the employment of staff, which included indications that appointment of relatives would not be looked upon favourably.[vii]
However, despite his overwhelming mandate, Modi does face a few problems. For one, most BJP members are not experienced enough to be appointed as ministers, and perhaps more importantly, BJP does not have many seats in the upper house of parliament (Rajya Sabha). This means he needs to endear himself to other parties, not to mention state governments, by handing out ministerial jobs.[viii] The result is a bulging cabinet of 45 ministers, and although this is still slim when compared with the unwieldy 79 ministers favoured by Congress, there have been some questionable decisions.
For a start, Arun Jaitley has been appointed Minister for Finance as well as Defence (although it is claimed that Defence will soon be taken over by someone else) and in the midst of soaring current account deficits, Commerce & Industry has been demoted to a junior ministry. To add to the confusion, many ministers have overlapping portfolios, which will make reform extremely difficult; Commerce & Industry, and Corporate Affairs could have been grouped in order to streamline the government, as could Power & Energy, and Petroleum & Natural Gas. Moreover, it beggars belief that a country like India does not even have a devoted Ministry of Education, instead of the rather clumsy Ministry of Human Resources Development. A dedicated education ministry would go a long way, as well as greater focus on employment and skills development.[ix]
The new Prime Minister has managed a better start on the foreign policy front. His unprecedented invitation to South Asian leaders for his swearing-in ceremony demonstrated a flair for theatricality, and the attendance of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was an important development, signalling that he is serious about normalising relations.[x] A rapprochement could be crucial not just for bilateral ties, particularly over the issue of Kashmir, but also for regional stability, as a convergent Indo-Pakistan policy towards Kabul could help mitigate the effects of the NATO withdrawal. Although he has set the right tone, India faces a vast array of geopolitical challenges – perhaps most notably how to make its borders defensible against threats from its eastern and western neighbours – and in a world where US hegemony is no longer uncontested, Modi may find himself making difficult foreign policy decisions.[xi]
The Bottom Line
Although the mandate from the electorate is clear, many observers fear that a BJP government will have no qualms about encroaching on civil liberties. This is potentially worrying because development at the expense of democratic values tends to be unsustainable. That being said, problems of democracy are already endemic to the Indian political system. While widely acclaimed as the world’s largest democracy, India falls far short of the ideal when you look beyond free and fair elections. Politicians are essentially a law unto themselves, and transparency and accountability are sorely lacking in the Indian system. At the heart of India’s democratic deficit are deeply entrenched cronyism and corruption which exist at all levels of society, and citizens have no choice but to resort to bribes in order to receive services which should be provided efficiently and effectively by the government, without the need for money to change hands. India desperately needs independent, effective institutions, a strong judiciary and greater investment in education and health, as well as building strong professional and epistemic communities.
Modi has convinced the nation that he is the right man for the job. Despite some of the doomsday messages echoing throughout Indian intelligentsia, Modi’s victory, above all, is not a mandate for Hindu nationalism. It is important to note that early analysis indicates that large numbers of Muslims voted for BJP as well – over 30 percent of Muslims in Rajasthan for example. Many Indians remain wary of his tainted past, and flawed though the system may be, institutions, opposition parties, and civil society will keep BJP from straying too far into nationalist territory.[xii] Most importantly, this deafening blow to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has, and will continue, to reinvigorate Indian politics by introducing fresh vibrancy and dynamism into a stagnant, stalling democracy.
Copyright © 2014 ISO | International Security Observer. Reprinting or republication of this article on websites is authorized by prominently displaying at the beginning of the post the following sentence and including the hyperlink to the article: “This article was originally published by the International Security Observer on June 17, 2014”.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Amit Dave
[i]Foreign Policy: The Modi Wave: India’s Election and American Interests, May 18 2014
[ii]Foreign Policy: Modi Sweeps India With Historic Mandate, May 16 2014
[iii]Times of India:Modi’s Win a Cultural Revenge? Yes, Indians Want a Better Life, May 18 2014,
[iv]Foreign Policy: India’s Political Earthquake, May 20 2014
[v] Foreign Policy: Why Narendra Modi Matters, May 13 2014
[vi]The Economic Times: Narendra Modi’s List of Top 10 Priorities for the Economy, May 29 2014
[vii]The Economic Times: Narendra Modi Takes ‘personal’ Interest in Nixing Nepotism; Circular Regarding
Appointment of Personal Staff Issued, May 29 2014 http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-
[viii]The Economist: A Flying Start, May 31 2014 http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21603066-forming-his-
[ix]The Economic Times: Can Narendra Modi Give a Great Government to This Country?, May 29 2014,
[x] The Economic Times: Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Trip to New Delhi Sent Multiple Signals,
[xi]The Hindu: The Fearful Asymmetries of Modi’s World, May 29 2014
[xii]Foreign Policy: India’s Political Earthquake, May 20 2014