India’s opposition party swept to victory Friday in the country’s national elections, setting the stage for Hindu nationalist and economic reformer Narendra Modi to become India’s next prime minister.
Modi, 63, chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, ran a ruthlessly efficient months-long campaign, spreading his message of hope and revitalization at thousands of rallies across the country. Ultimately, voters overwhelmingly chose his message of change, with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies garnering well over the 272 seats needed for a clear majority in Parliament.
The “Modi wave,” as it was called, meant crushing defeat for the governing Congress party and its 43-year-old scion, Rahul Gandhi, its chief campaigner. Across the country, voters heading to the polls said they were unhappy with corruption scandals and ineffectual leadership after 10 years of Congress party rule under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
U.S. officials sent congratulations as they tried to smooth over past differences with India and with Modi.
“Congrats to @narendramodi and BJP,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry tweeted Friday. “Look forward to working w/you/growing shared prosperity/security w/world’s largest democracy.”
An ebullient Modi spoke at two victory rallies Friday in his home state of Gujarat, with crowds interrupting his remarks with chants of “Modi, Modi, Modi!” He reveled in the mandate his party had achieved but pledged an inclusive government for a “shining India” that will make the 21st century “India’s century.”
“India’s social differences will come together and make a flag, just like different threads come together to weave a cloth,” Modi said. “People rose above caste rhetoric, a new foundation has been laid and will build a new shining India in the coming days.”
Modi, the son of a tea seller from one of India’s lower castes, grew visibly emotional when he spoke of the people of his home state, where he grew from a boy in a small village to the four-term chief minister.
“You people of Gujarat are my mother and father. You have raised me. While I serve Mother India, I will also worry about you,” he said. “You are my energy, you are my inspiration, you are my strength.”
In the capital, New Delhi, Modi’s supporters celebrated in the streets with fireworks, dancing and singing. But the Congress party headquarters was almost deserted, with security officials and media outnumbering workers. The mood was somber.
Gandhi, alongside his mother, Sonia, the party’s president, made brief remarks, accepting responsibility for the defeat of the party, which has dominated Indian politics for most of its 128 years.
The new government has “been given a mandate by the people of our country,” Gandhi said. “The Congress party has done pretty badly. There is a lot for us to think about.”
The telegenic Gandhi comes from a historic lineage of former prime ministers but had failed to connect with voters on the campaign trail and performed poorly in major television interviews. Gandhi did retain his parliamentary seat representing Amethi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, that has been a Gandhi family bastion for years.
Invitation from Washington
The United States congratulated Modi without hesitation Friday, appearing to look beyond a past controversy: As Gujarat’s chief minister, Modi failed to control riots when the state descended into religious violence more than a decade ago. That led the United States to deny Modi a visa in 2005.
President Obama called Modi on Friday, the White House said, and invited him to visit Washington at some point in the future.
“The president noted he looks forward to working closely with Mr. Modi to fulfill the extraordinary promise of the U.S.-India strategic partnership, and they agreed to continue expanding and deepening the wide-ranging cooperation between our two democracies,” a statement from the White House said.
The Obama administration is eager to get off on the right foot with Modi and to put to rest a deep rift with the Singh government. Although relations have been patched over in the past few months, the scars are still fresh from a diplomatic row over the December arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York.
The Singh government was outraged over what it called egregious mistreatment of the diplomat, and it retaliated by removing some security measures at U.S. diplomatic facilities in India and eliminating perks for diplomats there.
“This is an important relationship,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “A strong, bilateral partnership. And the president looks forward to building on the progress that we’ve made with Prime Minister Singh in our relationship.”
The U.S. ambassador to India met with Modi in February after years in which the populist politician was largely shunned by Washington. The meeting was a signal that the United States would work with Modi if he won.
News that the business-friendly Modi and his party were headed for a rout sent the Sensex, the Indian stock market, soaring, and the rupee strengthened against the dollar.
India’s business community hopes Modi will be able to fulfill his campaign promises to jump-start the economy, create jobs and revive stalled infrastructure projects, but he faces steep challenges. In recent years, job creation and the country’s growth rate have dipped, inflation has skyrocketed, and investors stymied by the country’s sluggish bureaucracy have either sat on their money or taken it elsewhere.
“He is coming in with fresh ideas,” said Sidharth Birla, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “It will go a long way in removing the negative perception about India that had built up in the past few years.”
Friday’s vote count was the culmination of six weeks of voting in a country of 1.2 billion people, the world’s largest democratic exercise. A record 66 percent of the country’s 814 million voters went to the polls.
An early analysis of exit poll results this week by Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington suggested that Modi’s party had dominated not only the urban vote but also the balloting in rural areas, which had long been a bastion of the Congress party.
In addition, Modi won the hearts of younger voters, a huge factor in a country where two-thirds of the population is younger than 35.
“It is an important election because the trend in the counting shows that old ideas about caste, religion and region have not been relevant. By and large, it has been a vote for change, for development and for a decisive leader,” said Dipankar Gupta, a political analyst and author. “The youth across India have voted for change, and Modi represented that change.”
Gupta noted that results showed little difference between India’s Internet-connected and increasingly sophisticated urban voters and the nearly 70 percent of the population that still lives in rural areas.
“The aspirations of rural and urban Indians are similar,” Gupta said. “People in villages don’t want to just get out of poverty, but they want quality of life. This is something the Congress party has not understood. The old village economy is crumbling; people are getting educated and looking for opportunities outside agriculture. . . . That is what this election reflects.” India’s younger voters, she said, “want respect from the world and want to be recognized by the world as a power, which will only come after India becomes a strong nation under Modi.”
Courting younger voters
Modi led one of the most ambitious, presidential-style election campaigns in Indian history, mobilizing an army of volunteers across India and running a 24-hour war room that helped him dominate social media and tailor his change message. He traveled thousands of miles in person and even appeared to voters at rallies as a hologram.
According to Twitter India, Modi dominated 20 percent of all election-related chatter on Twitter, with 11.1 million mentions between January and May. In comparison, Gandhi was featured in only 2 percent of Twitter conversations about elections, or 1.3million mentions for the same period.
Modi went to great lengths to reach out to the country’s first-time voters, whom BJP President Rajnath Singh acknowledged at the news conference Friday. “The country’s youth felt the impatience for change,” he said.
First-time voter Mohan Chaudhary, 23, a student from rural Haryana state, painted an image of Modi on his face to celebrate the victory. He said he voted for Modi “because he has a vision for India and for the youth.”
“I hope Modi will revive the economy and generate jobs,” he said. “There is unemployment in our district, and people have to move to cities to work. Modi has promised jobs in villages.”
And expectations for the new leader are running high.
“If he fails to deliver, this is going to be my last vote,” Chaudhary said.
Sumit Soni, 28, a medical practitioner, said she had supported Modi on Twitter and Facebook and that his victory was “a new dawn for India.”