A Historic Victory For India’s Nationalists?

By Jonah Shepp


Passing along this map of India’s election results, Max Fisher comments on just how big the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory was:

We knew from polls that BJP was almost certainly going to win. And it’s been clear for a few years that the Congress Party, as India’s economy slowed and middle-class Indians suffered, was losing popularity. But the extent of orange on this map, and the dearth of blue, is just stunning. Doug Saunders, a respected international affairs columnist at the Globe and Mail, called it “one of the biggest electoral routs I’ve ever seen.”

The results aren’t completely in yet [as of Friday afternoon] and BJP has already won an outright majority of 280 out of 545 seats. Typically, several parties have to form coalitions to get a majority, so the fact that BJP has a majority all on its own is a big deal.

But Adam Ziegfeld disputes this narrative, attributing the BJP’s lopsided majority in parliament to India’s electoral system:

First, as of the most recent counting, almost 70 percent of Indians did not vote for the BJP.

Commentators such as Max Fisher at Vox claim that the BJP “dramatically … swept the vote.” In fact, the BJP won about 31 percent of the vote, a new high for the party. Although this is the first national election in which the BJP has ever won more votes than any other party, less than a third of Indians voted for it. The BJP’s legislative majority is largely a function of India’s single-member district (SMD) electoral system, the same system used in American, British, and Canadian legislative elections. In an SMD system, votes rarely translate proportionally into seats. This system rewards parties that are the largest in each electoral district. The BJP’s vote is patchily distributed across India, which works to its advantage. …

Meanwhile, in states where the BJP won few seats, it did quite poorly. Thus, relatively few of the BJP’s votes were wasted—that is, cast in electoral districts where the party ultimately failed to win a legislative seat. As a result, the party won a legislative majority on a fairly small vote share.

Taking a long look at Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi’s career, William Dalrymple comes away with some concerns:

Today Modi remains the most polarising figure in Indian politics. Many intellectuals and urban liberals view him as an almost satanic figure pushing India towards fascism. They point to his record with dissent: journalists from the Times of India who wrote against his government had sedition charges brought against them; Rahul Sharma, a policeman who helped convict many of the 2002 rioters, had his promotion blocked (“due to misspellings”); Teesta Setalvad, the lawyer who brought riot cases against him, had charges of embezzlement slapped on her. Most sinister of all, Haren Pandya, Modi’s former home minister, who agreed to give evidence against him to an independent commission of inquiry into the riots, was first made to resign his position, then deprived of his seat and finally murdered in mysterious circumstances in 2003. Modi, the argument goes, displays all the signs of becoming an Indian Putin.

Despite his image as a successful economic reformer, John Cassidy points out that this is not a fact universally acknowledged:

Many, though not all, economists believe the Indian economy needs another wave of liberalization that builds upon the one that Singh introduced in the nineteen-nineties, when he was minister of finance. Those measures cut the budget deficit, stripped away some of the country’s infamous licensing restrictions, and made it easier for foreigners to invest in Indian companies. Jagdish Bhagwati, the Columbia University economist who is one of Modi’s most prominent supporters, has criticized Singh for not following up on these reforms during his time as Prime Minister.

It has been widely reported that Bhagwati and his Columbia colleague Arvind Panagariya, another supporter of free-market reforms, will play some role in the new Indian government. Modi, however, also has his critics in the academy. Some studies suggest that Gujarat, despite enjoying stronger than average growth, has a questionable record relative to other Indian states in reducing poverty, improving child nutrition, and promoting education and social inclusion. Last year, Amartya Sen, perhaps India’s most famous economist, came out strongly against Modi’s candidacy, criticizing his failure to protect religious minorities, and saying, “His record in education and health care is pretty bad.”

Daniel Twining sees Modi’s pro-growth agenda as good news for Indian-American ties:

The greatest momentum in U.S.-Indian relations came during the 2000s, when India was growing at rates approaching 10 percent. The growth Modi promises should restore energy to the bilateral relationship. A flourishing India undergoing vigorous reform will be a better business partner for American firms than one limping along under state socialism. A dynamic India is more likely to have the confidence to engage the United States as a diplomatic partner, rather than retreating into the old shibboleths of non-alignment and third-worldism. A surging India is also more likely to pursue the kind of activist foreign policy that makes it a shaper, rather than a victim, of world events.

But comparing Modi’s worldview with Obama’s, Tunku Varadarajan doubts the two will get chummy:

Obama and Modi are from two different planets, and each, in his heart, is likely to have vigorous contempt for the other. The former is an exquisitely calibrated product of American liberalism, ever attentive to such notions as “inclusiveness.” He is the acme of political correctness (notwithstanding the odd drone directed at “AfPak”). Modi, by contrast, is a blunt-spoken nationalist, opposed to welfare, and to the “appeasement” of minorities. …

Modi’s keenest ally—potentially his BFF—is likely to be Japan’s Shinzo Abe, who was one of the first to send his congratulations to the Indian politician when it became apparent that he would be the next prime minister. Abe and Modi are, in many ways, made for each other: Ardent nationalists yearning to break free from their respective nations’ patterns of international passivity, they both face the terrifying challenge of a China that plays by its own unyielding rules, a maximalist hegemon which has the economic and military heft to dispense with diplomacy as the primary means of dispute resolution.

And Tanvi Madan considers what issues are likely to define Modi’s foreign policy:

The relationship with Pakistan is perhaps the biggest wild card. It is not known whether Modi will essentially take the line that India needs stability in its neighborhood to ensure economic growth and development, which is the primary and perhaps sole objective for which he will have a clear public mandate. Such an assessment could mean Modi would reach out to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and take confidence-building measures further, especially in the economic realm. There are some who think he’ll go further—in the Nixon-going-to-China vein. …

There’s a possibility that Modi will take a more hawkish line instead. This is especially likely if, in the first six months or so of his government, there is a major terrorist attack in India or on Indians abroad that can be traced to elements in Pakistan. This is not a far-fetched scenario—terrorist groups might see the period of political transition as an opportunity to derail any chance for peace. And in the event of such an attack it is unlikely that any Indian government will sit back and do nothing or essentially act in a post-Mumbai-like manner—especially if there is little cooperation from the Pakistani government.

Previous Dish on Modi and the election results here and here.