Ecstasy and apprehension greet Narendra Modi’s landslide

Shortly after India’s prime minister Narendra Modi was re-elected by a landslide on Thursday, his supporters flocked to the New Delhi headquarters of his Bharatiya Janata Party to celebrate their leader’s triumph.

Brass bands played alongside frenetic traditional drummers, as BJP workers, volunteers and loyalists broke into impromptu dancing and chanted Mr Modi’s name. Among the elated was Versha Chaudhary, an insurance professional, who had taken a day off work to join the celebrations for her hero. 

“I am very happy,” she said. “Modi deserves this position and India deserves Modi. Since I was a child in school, I only read that India was a developing country. I want to see that India is a developed country and only Modi can deliver that.” 

When the premier finally took the stage to thank his supporters, hundreds of phones were held in the air to record the moment. “We just believe he’s like a god,” Deepak Singh Bhandari, a 32-year-old hotel worker, said afterwards. “He’s a great leader for India, just like Trump and Putin, all people follow him.” 

But at Batla House, a Muslim enclave in South Delhi, the mood was of subdued resignation at the prospect of another five years of rule by Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP. In a narrow alley lined with small shops selling fresh meat, kitchen utensils and clothing, people said they had cast their votes for the opposition or abstained. 

“Half of India is in mourning,” said Mohammed Mustaqeem Abbasi, a 24-year-old medical transcriber at a Delhi hospital. “Modi has damaged not just Muslims, he’s destroyed lower class minorities. Privileged Hindus and Muslims wouldn’t worry, but for others it’s a huge loss.” 

The celebrations at BJP headquarters and the unease at Batla House highlight the deep divisions over Mr Modi’s re-election, in a landslide that has affirmed his position as the most powerful Indian politician since the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi ruled the country with an iron hand. 

Defying predictions that his popularity would wane after five years in power, and despite his mixed economic record, Mr Modi improved on his already impressive 2014 performance, leading a BJP sweep of 303 of India’s 543 elected parliamentary seats. 

BJP celebrations contrasted with unease in the Muslim district of Balta House, highlighting the deep divisions over Narendra Modi’s victory © Bloomberg
Narendra Modi and BJP members celebrate the party’s sweeping election victory. Supporters are looking to the prime minister to boost their prosperity despite his mixed economic record in his previous term © Bloomberg

Such a magnitude of victory has not been seen in India since 1984, when the Congress party’s Rajiv Gandhi was swept to power on a wave of sympathy after his mother Indira’s assassination. 

Analysts say Mr Modi’s electoral triumph was down to a combination of formidable political skills, the efficiency of the BJP party machinery and its massive voter outreach, and the disarray, disunity and poverty of ideas among the prime minister’s rivals. 

During the campaign, he fashioned himself as a humble chowkidar, or watchman, standing guard over the nation’s interest. In victory he has shifted to depict himself as a humble Hindu fakir, or ascetic, dependent on public generosity for his win. 

“Mr Modi has genuine political instincts and attributes that are remarkable for his generation in terms of his ability to connect with voters, his own personal life story, his oratory and his charisma on the campaign trail,” said Milan Vaishnav, author of several books on Indian politics. 

“But you can’t view Modi in a vacuum,” Mr Vaishnav added. “You have to view him against a set of other political alternatives. The opposition struggled to mount an affirmative agenda as opposed to just an anti-Modi agenda.” 

However Mr Modi’s resounding victory cannot obscure the fact that he remains a highly polarising figure, whose disruptive policies and shrewd self-promotion in the past five years have aroused strong passions in both his supporters and his detractors. 

“It’s not the sort of namby-pamby leadership we’ve gotten accustomed too before,” said Swapan Dasgupta, a member of parliament. “He’s taken difficult decisions and managed them politically. You can either like it or dislike it.” 

To his admirers, Mr Modi is an incorruptible, hardworking, strong-willed political leader who offers India its best chance of eradicating poverty, developing the economy, generating jobs and emerging as a respected international power. 

Addressing his supporters at the BJP headquarters after his victory on Thursday, Mr Modi also sought to bring the focus to economics after a campaign largely focused on national security. 

“Those playing the caste games have been dealt a huge blow. Only two castes will remain in this country — the poor and those who want to help eliminate poverty,” he said. 

BJP detractors fear the scale of the party’s victory will herald a further squeeze on dissent © Bloomberg
Defying predictions that his popularity would wane after five years in power, Narendra Modi improved on his already impressive 2014 performance © Bloomberg

The Bombay Stock Exchange Sensex, which rose 3.75 per cent on Monday on exit polls predicting Mr Modi’s landslide win, rose 1.67 per cent on Friday as investors remained upbeat about the country’s prospects. 

But Mr Modi’s detractors — including intellectuals and religious minorities — fear the prime minister’s strong mandate will presage a further squeeze on space for dissent, as well as a shift to more explicit privileging of India’s Hindus over religious minorities. 

“India has taken another step towards becoming an illiberal democracy,” Christophe Jaffrelot, a senior research fellow at Sciences Po, wrote in the Indian Express on Friday. “When one person embodies the nation and projects himself as its saviour against all kinds of threats, any questioning of his authority is deemed illegitimate.” 

It remains to be seen whether the electorate’s hopes or fears will be realised over the next five years. But with his second-consecutive landslide, one thing is clear: Mr Modi — who has often depicted himself as a political outsider fighting a powerful liberal elite — can no longer easily claim to be an insurgent. 

“In 2014, Modi came to power saying he is an outsider, and in his first term he made many claims that he was the victim of an entrenched secular elite,” said Kapil Komireddi, author of the new book Malevolent Republic, about India’s political culture. “Now, he has no excuse whatsoever. He is the establishment. He is the boss. He is India. Modi is India and India is Modi.”

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