Thoughts on India's New Prime Minister Narendra Modi

05/29/2014 12:46 pm ET | Updated Jul 29, 2014

The fact that a tea-seller's son who sold cups of tea at a railway station has become India's Prime Minister with a thumping majority, is indicative of a sea change in Indian politics. Modi, through his triumph, has put paid to the dynastic dominance of the Nehru family, which had ruled India for most of its independent history of 67 years. Modi was an energetic campaigner supported, among others, by big business interests who used modern methods of electioneering to reach a cross-section of the 800 million strong Indian electorate.

The Indian voting public had become increasingly alienated from and disenchanted with the Congress rule of the duumvirate of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. The latter was the Prime Minister for the past decade but was beholden to the leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, for his elevation to this position and therefore had to defer to her. The initial huge economic successes attained by the Indian economy which grew at an amazing 8-9 percent annually, could not be sustained. For the last couple of years, the rate of growth has decreased substantially to around 4.5 percent while inflation has made inroads into the pocket book of the average Indian. The Indian public was tired of corruption scandals and other shenanigans of its political class. Seeing no visible improvement in their economic lot, it has decisively voted for change by empowering Modi and his right-wing, largely Hindu-dominated party, the BJP.

India, at around 1.3 billion and adding around 17 million souls to the population, is currently the second most populous country after China. Demographers estimate that it will overtake China in a few years' time to become the most populous country in the world. It is also a bewildering combination of differing religions, castes, conflicting regional and ethnic aspirations, and other serious issues such as insurgencies in central India's Assam state and Indian-administered Kashmir, which is disputed between neighboring Pakistan and India. It seems that the Indian electorate had given up on Congress to fulfill their economic expectations. Modi has successfully exploited this big chink in the Congress armor by pointing to his record of sustained high economic growth in Gujarat state of which he has been Chief Minister for more than a decade. Not unlike other politicians at the hustings, Modi has made expansive promises to his fellow countrymen; he has vowed to move away from the Congress policies of giving subsidies and handouts to impoverished Indians. Instead, he promises to pull them up by their bootstraps by providing them job opportunities for economic betterment. Milan Vaishnav, an analyst observing Modi's rise, had stated that while 200 million Indians had been pulled out of poverty in the past couple of decades, millions still remain mired in degrading conditions with not much hope of betterment. "It is these vast multitudes who will be looking up to Modi to lead them, as he has constantly promised, to the Promised Land."

The biggest blot on Modi's performance as Chief Minister of Gujarat was that during the horrific communal riots between Hindus and Muslims, which swept through Gujarat in 2002, he did nothing to stop the killing of the minority Muslim community. An estimated 1000 or more Muslims were killed during this terrible episode. While an Indian court has exonerated Modi of complicity in the 2002 communal carnage, elements in India nonetheless hold him responsible for not acting decisively to avoid the killing spree which occurred. Modi has yet to express his regrets for the communal tragedy in Gujarat.

Modi's background, as a committed member of a Hindu nationalist party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had also painted him as espousing militant Hinduism at the expense of the 170 million strong Muslim community as well as other numerically smaller non-Hindu communities that comprise the multi-religious and multi-cultural fabric of India. It is not surprising that this adherence to Hindutva (India as a land for Hindus only) has made the Indian minorities nervous. While Modi lately has tried to reassure Indians that he will be a prime minister for all Indians without discrimination of caste, color, or creed, it is not clear yet how much this statement has been able to mitigate the fears of the minorities.

During his election campaign, Modi stood for a muscular nationalism. He contrasted it with what was perceived as the lackluster approach of the Congress government toward China and Pakistan. An important question is that will he continue with this approach or will he move toward defusing tensions with these two neighbors. India has had conflictual relations with both in the past. He got off to a good start by inviting his south Asian neighbors to participate in his inauguration ceremony. All of them reciprocated by attending the ceremony. The Indian media particularly focused on the presence of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, the perennial rival of India. Sharif's gesture and the subsequent 50-minute bilateral meeting between the two, will help to break the ice in the frosty relations currently existing between the two nuclear armed neighbors. It will be a huge achievement if Modi and Nawaz Sharif, both elevated to power with large mandates, can utilize their political strength in ameliorating their political and economic relationship. Both will gain substantially if this occurs.

Modi and party must now face the challenge of living up to the aspirations of the vast majority of Indians clamoring for a positive change in their condition. This can only be achieved by boosting growth and jobs, no easy task. India will remain subject to caste and identity politics. These will provide a formidable obstacle to Modi's ambitious plans to transform India into a major economic and political power. One can hope, along with India's neighbors, as well as other countries, that Modi's assumption of the Prime Ministership will yield positive dividends in the domestic and foreign policy arenas.