Modi’s Star Rises as Party Defeats India’s Congress in State Elections

The pro-business conservative appears to have galvanized his Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of next year’s general election.

Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, speaks in Surat, India, January 4
Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, speaks in Surat, India, January 4 (Reuters/Amit Dave)

India’s conservative leader Narendra Modi appeared to have galvanized his party ahead of a national election next year with impressive gains in the states of Delhi and Rajasthan.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party also held on to its majorities in Chhattisgarh in Madhya Pradesh in central India. Exit polls suggested the ruling Congress party had further lost ground in Mizoram in the northeast but to local parties.

The results were a blow to the party that has ruled India for much of its independence. Especially middle-class voters have grown restless since it last assumed power in 2004. Rising inflation, now at 7 percent, and a string of corruption scandals have undermined confidence in the coalition government it leads.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who initiated the liberalization of India’s economy as finance minister in the 1990s, is due to step down next year and would leave the left in disarray. His coalition, which includes a variety of leftist parties from centrist to communist, has been unable to unite behind a convincing economic policy. Growth was cut in half from an almost 10 percent high before the global financial crisis to 5 percent in 2012. It is not expected to come in higher this year.

In dozens of public appearances across the states where elections were held last week, Modi touted his pro-business credentials in Gujarat, an industrial state in the west of India where the Hindu nationalist has governed since 2001, clearly presenting himself as an alternative to the incumbent administration.

Despite high growth and increased per capita incomes, critics point out that Gujarat’s human development has stalled under Modi’s leadership. The state is still the thirteenth most poorest out of 28 and near the bottom in terms of education. But officials maintain that its lackluster performance in both regards is in line with national trends.

Modi can probably present himself as a champion of India’s striving class anyway. In his speeches, he ridicules his most likely opponent, Rahul Gandhi, the son of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and grandson of former prime minister Indira Gandhi, as a “prince,” contrasting the Cambridge educated politician’s privileged upbringing to his own modest background. Modi’s father was a tea seller.

The class rhetoric could help Modi win votes from Congress’ traditional power base, the rural poor. The party doles out generous farm subsidies and food handouts that have made it popular in the countryside.

Rahul Gandhi, despite not having been formally nominated as its prime ministerial candidate, also boasts of Congress’ success in welfare but this seems to have failed to capture the imagination of many of India’s aspirational young voters.

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