Modi Strengthens Grip on Power, Pulling India Further to Right
BJP workers celebrate party’s lead in the Lok Sabha elections 2019, in Varanasi. (Source: PTI)

Modi Strengthens Grip on Power, Pulling India Further to Right

(Bloomberg) --

If anyone had any doubts about Narendra Modi’s popularity, India’s masses just put them to rest.

His Bharatiya Janata Party swept to another single-party majority on Thursday, a margin that surprised political watchers who expected him to return with a weakened mandate. A combination of economic populism, Hindu nationalism and air strikes against arch-rival Pakistan earlier this year proved unbeatable.

Modi Strengthens Grip on Power, Pulling India Further to Right

“This is a stunning reaffirmation of Modi and the BJP and, conversely, a sharp rebuke of the opposition,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The BJP will have wide latitude to redraw the boundaries between religion and politics in a way that favors the Hindu majority.”

In a speech to thousands of party workers in Delhi on Thursday night, Modi denounced parties that campaigned on secularism and said the electorate had rejected the idea while handing him a landslide. Peppering his speech with references to Hindu gods, he said his victory will be recorded as the biggest event in the political history of the world.

“You must have seen how from 2014 to 2019, those who brandished the tag of secularism have stopped speaking,” Modi told cheering supporters. “In this entire election, political parties wearing the veil of secularism couldn’t misguide people.”

Investors pushed India’s benchmark stock indexes to new highs on Thursday before the rally faded late in the session. The prospect of a coalition government, which was previously the norm for decades in India, had sparked concerns that the nation would see a return to the policy gridlock that led to Modi’s first big win five years ago.

The big question now is where Modi takes India over the next five years. After his 2014 win, he promised voters staples like jobs, toilets and affordable housing in a bid to bolster an economy where one in five people live on less than $2 per day.

Modi Strengthens Grip on Power, Pulling India Further to Right

This time around, his presidential-style campaign focused more on stoking patriotism and appealing to Hindus who make up about 80 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

“I worry that the communal bitterness unleashed in this campaign will make it hard to heal,” said Alyssa Ayres, a former U.S. diplomat and now senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The Modi of five years ago spoke about development for all and inclusive growth. That message sounds pretty faint today.”

Growth Challenge

Modi’s immediate task will be revving up the economy. Economists forecast growth in the three months through March at the slowest pace in almost two years, and fiscal space is limited to pay for promises like cash handouts to farmers and hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure spending.

An escalating U.S.-China trade war and volatile oil prices -- India’s biggest import -- are adding to the uncertainty. Most government ministries are focused on broad plans to create jobs and boost exports by 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence.

“I expect a lot more on this new India 2022 -- the thrust on this is quite strong,” said Amarjeet Sinha, a secretary in the Ministry of Rural Development.

Modi Strengthens Grip on Power, Pulling India Further to Right

On foreign policy, Modi’s mandate will also allow him to continue boosting India’s role on the global stage, which included shifting closer to the U.S. to counter China. His administration is also expected to continue to rally global opinion against Pakistan.

But the biggest question mark over Modi’s second term is how hard he’ll push a pro-Hindu agenda. Under his watch running the western state of Gujarat in 2002, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in deadly riots. While human-rights groups say Modi could’ve stopped them, a Supreme Court-appointed panel found no evidence he gave orders that prevented assistance for the victims.

Modi’s political career -- and the BJP itself -- is rooted in efforts to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram in the northern city of Ayodhya in the 1980s. Nation-wide riots after a mosque was demolished on the site in December 1992 killed at least 2,000 people, mostly Muslims.

Modi Strengthens Grip on Power, Pulling India Further to Right

Modi told a local media outlet earlier this year that his government may issue an order to build the Ram temple after the Supreme Court decides on a pending land dispute over the site that has been in court for some seven decades.

Mob Justice

That would build on pro-Hindu measures during his first term, including a national ban on sale of cattle to slaughterhouses. Human Rights Watch cited the measure as a reason mobs of so-called cow vigilantes have killed dozens of Muslims across 12 Indian states since 2015. Cows are sacred to Hindus, while Muslims are traditionally cattle dealers and butchers.

One victor Thursday was BJP member Pragya Singh Thakur, who was accused of planning bomb blasts in a Muslim neighborhood that killed six people in 2008 and also called founding father Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin a patriot. Party leaders defended her candidacy.

Modi Strengthens Grip on Power, Pulling India Further to Right

Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party, didn’t fare as well after warning that Modi would erode the nation’s secular roots. The grandson of the late Indira Gandhi (and great-grandson of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru) lost one of the two seats he contested. Congress only won a few more seats than it took in 2014, which was its worst performance since India’s independence.

“India hasn’t seen this kind of concentration of power in an individual since Indira Gandhi’s heyday more than 40 years ago,” said Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Modi’s personal triumph means there will be even fewer checks on his authority than before.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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