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India Awaits Change as New Leader Takes Over

The world’s largest democracy this week experiences a transition of government. After a total defeat for India's Congress Party in elections with a record high turnout of more than 553 million voters, the soft-spoken Sikh, Manmohan Singh, 81, gives way to the forthright Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi, 63, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Over a decade while the Congress Party was in power, the economy created just one-tenth of the jobs necessary to keep pace with its growing population.

The country also watched itself fall farther behind neighbor China in terms of gross domestic product and foreign direct investment.

Agriculture remains the backbone of both econonmies of the Asian giants but China's techniques to grow crops are considered more advanced than India's, producing better yields.

The big question: can the next leader improve on India's record?
Narendra Modi, the man set to become India's next prime minister:
  • Member of main Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party
  • As a child, helped his father sell tea at a railway station
  • Served as chief minister of Gujarat state since 2001
  • Criticized for handling of deadly Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002
  • 63 years old; unmarried; has no children
Modi is known for pro-business policies and has pledged support for two long-elusive goals: a corruption-free government and universal secondary education. But he is criticized as an autocrat.

“I cannot recall a prime minister who has been quite so polarizing a figure and who brings to power as much divisive baggage as Mr. Modi brings,” says Siddarth Varadarajan, senior fellow at the Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory who adds that civil society now needs to be especially vigilant.

Modi's party comes into office with enormous political power: able to pass laws without any coalition partners and with the Congress Party severely crippled.

Critics contend that during Modi’s dozen years as chief minister in Gujarat, his state waged a systematic campaign against justice for Muslims and other minorities.

“One troubling feature of the campaign Mr. Modi ran was that he was often counter-posing his promises of growth with secularism and saying ‘do you want growth or do you want secularism?’ which I think is really a very false choice to offer the electorate because a country like India needs both,” says Varadarajan.

Those among India's intellectual class express hope the staunch Hindi nationalist to moderate his style and accommodate those beyond his base, once he becomes the country's 17th prime minister.

“I do think Mr. Modi is smart enough to know you can run a small state in a particular fashion,” says economist Parth Shah, who runs the Centre for Civil Society think tank dedicated to India’s social challenges. “You can’t run 1.2 billion people large country with so many diverse interests and so many different strong personalities at the state level, in the way you could run a single state.”

There is also a tremendous level of frustration across India with the failure for previous government to establish the rule of law. Police are regarded as corrupt and inefficient. Extrajudicial killings as a counterinsurgency tactic are common. High level judges frequently face accusations of financial and moral corruption.

“There's quite a bit of consensus on what needs to be done,” says Shah. “That could be a very easy and clear way to set a tone for the new administration that they mean business, they're going to be able to provide the right services to the citizens and at the same time stem the corruption that is happening in these two very particular areas of public life.”

Whatever their political stripes or policy objectives, India's top political leaders since independence in 1947 have not lost sight of the government's primary mandate to uplift the underclasses

“More than anything else and above everything - beyond the foreign policy disputes, entanglements, et cetera, is this huge compulsion to try and pull up people from poverty,” explains Observer Research Foundation distinguished fellow Manoj Joshi

Modi - who comes from humble caste and class - in his youth worked in tea stalls. Now his supporters among the masses, who gave him a landslide victory, are hoping he can deliver on his promise to serve them their tall order for achieving upward mobility.

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