India: Modi's Mandate

Narendra Modi flashes the victory sign at a meeting of Bharatiya Janata Party candidates in Gandhinagar, north of Ahmedabad, Dec. 16, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 

When the state of Gujarat held elections on Dec. 12, the entire subcontinent looked on anxiously. In choosing a new leadership, the state, which lies on the tense India-Pakistan border, was faced with a decision that cut to the core of India’s identity: Would the people choose Narendra Modi, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister (and former Hindu nationalist preacher)? His police stood by last spring as Hindu rioters, incensed by the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims burned on a train by a Muslim mob, torched Muslim shops, raped Muslim women, and killed 1,000 people—most of them Muslims. Or would they choose the opposition Congress party, which advocates a secular pluralism?

On Dec. 15 the results came in. To the dismay of many in the Indian media, the people gave the BJP 126 of the 182 seats in the state assembly; Congress won only 51.

Few downplayed the significance of this vote. “In accepting Modi and all that he stands for, we have decided to become a different kind of nation,” said one writer in The Telegraph (Dec. 16). A writer for The Hindu noted (Dec. 12) that this election “tests India’s identity as a modern and inclusive democracy.”

So how did Modi win? First, his campaign played relentlessly on people’s fear of terrorism, which he attributed to Muslims. Outlook described the BJP message (Dec. 23) as “Terrorism equals Muslims. Muslims equal terrorism.” And the message got through. Outlook interviewed one couple who explained they planned to vote for the BJP because, “If the Congress comes to power, the Muslims will become bold. They may attack us.”
Second, many attributed Modi’s win to the fact that he was able to put Congress on the defensive. “The Congress, in Modi-speak, is a party that caters to the minorities. This has led to [Congress] spending much of the campaign trying to prove its Hindu antecedents,” explained Outlook (Dec. 23). Muslims make up around 10 percent of Gujarat’s population.
Many felt Modi’s success threatened India’s very identity as a secular nation. The Indian Express (Dec. 17) said the result shook “the foundations of the Constitution, which enunciates India’s commitment to secularism....Independent India did not become a Hindu state because such an ethos was at odds with the pluralism which the country has reflected for centuries.”

At least one paper was not wholly pessimistic about the outcome of the election. The Times of India quoted Modi as saying (Dec. 16) that his party “will not just be a government for those who voted for us, but also for those who have not.” But few seemed to believe this line. “Can India afford to let Mr. Modi throw away five decades of coexistence that has made Indian democracy a success story the world-over?” asked a columnist for The Hindu (Dec. 12). This remains for the Indian people—of all religious persuasions—to decide.