The Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory in Friday’s parliamentary elections in India was a vote against corruption, entitlement and poverty. It is the first time any party has won a majority in the Indian Parliament in over three decades.
The vote was a reflection of Indians’ frustration with the status quo: a government riddled with corrupt bureaucrats, a business climate in which an entrepreneur must jump through multiple hoops and grease palms to get anything done, and a sagging economy. Indians want to share in the wealth they see in America and other nations — they want to achieve the “American dream.” They hope that they too can achieve success by sheer hard work and perseverance instead of having their dreams dashed by corrupt bureaucrats and a labyrinth of roadblocks. The average Indian struggles to keep his or her head above the quicksand, while the privileged few live lives of lavish luxury and untold wealth.
The BJP leader Narendra Modi, who once worked as a “chai walla” (tea server) at a bus station, is the epitome of the American dream. He rose through the ranks by self-study and sheer persistence, quite an achievement in an overtly class-conscious society.
While chief minister of Gujarat, he had a record of clean governance and business promotion. He eliminated red tape, took a hard line on corruption, boosted the supply of electricity and improved state infrastructure. As a result, the state’s economic growth surpassed the national average. For a country ranked by the World Bank as 134th in ease of doing business, Mr. Modi’s promise to remove roadblocks to investment and corporate development is a compelling one.
The “Gujarat model” of development focuses on infrastructure, urbanization and eradicating red tape. The Tata Group relocated a car plant to the state, because Mr. Modi delivered in three days what other states merely talked about, with “No side deals, no quid pro quos,” Tata’s former chairman Ratan Tata told Fareed Zakaria. Mr. Modi hopes to replicate this model throughout the country.
However, Mr. Modi has a difficult task ahead of him. He has to deal with powerful interest groups and resentment among the nations’ 175 million Muslims. Mr. Modi addressed this concern in his victory speech, saying: “I want to tell my fellow Indians that in letter and spirit I will take all Indians with me.”
Although much has been written about Narendra Modi’s alleged Hindu nationalist tendencies, the most surprising result of the election was that Mr. Modi’s party did well even in Muslim-dominated voting districts. His party prevailed even in districts where more than half of the population is Muslim. The change in attitude among a sizable proportion of the Muslim community is one of the most remarkable outcomes of this election.
Syed Md. Khalid, a Muslim leader in the eastern state of West Bengal, said Mr. Modi had changed over the years and become more responsible.
“This is not a vote on communal lines. This is a vote for development and for jobs. We respect the people’s verdict and we think Modi will have to be a responsible leader,” Mr. Khalid said.
Across the country in Ahmedabad, the largest city of Gujarat, Muslim businessman Salim Quadri agreed.
“We have seen Narendra Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat since 2001. I don’t think there is any need for any fear or apprehensions with Modi as prime minister,” he said.
However, in order to succeed in his ambitious agenda and deliver on his promises, Mr. Modi must learn to be more diplomatic and conciliatory in his dealings with those who oppose his agenda. Known for his blunt speech and autocratic tendencies, he must seek the support of those with differing views while delivering on his promise to help Indians’ achieve the “American dream” (my words).
Otherwise, Mr. Modi’s legacy will fade into history as another instance of promises unfulfilled. For India, a nation of tremendous untapped potential amid extreme poverty, that would be a real tragedy.
Kamana Mathur of Collier is an attorney and former U.S. diplomat who served in India (www.mathurlaw.us).