Gujarat Election Test for Indian Right’s National Ambitions

If Narendra Modi is reelected, he could become the conservative candidate for prime minister.

In a democracy, charisma and leadership are often overstated. Yet no other form of government needs leadership as much as democracy.

In this sense, India can offer a curious case. Despite having so many regional satraps with mass following, very few have been able to project their clout at the national level. Moreover, one regional satrap is not unusually viewed with suspicion by another so that the general consensus is to have somebody with no mass following at all. Incumbent prime minister Manmohan Singh is a perfect example of this.

Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi defies the rule. The conservative politician has a mass following as well as national appeal. As his state votes in assembly elections next week, Modi’s future will be decades. If he leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to victory once more, he could emerge as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the next general election.

If translated into Western political terms, Modi’s politics represent far-right conservatism. He seeks to build a strong nation in India, one that is economically vibrant and attractive to foreign investors. “Scale, speed and skills” are supposed to make the twenty-first century an Indian one, he claims.

If Modi’s politics represent dynamism in contrast to the laidbackness of general Indian politics, his capitalist economic vision and emphasis on growing the middle class similarly challenges India’s experience with central planning and stagnation. It is for these reasons that, despite criticism in the liberal Indian media and from abroad, Modi has been able to galvanize voters in his home state.

Modi’s real test is if he can project his popularity beyond Gujarat and increase popular supports for the Bharatiya Janata Party on the national level. It’s far from certain yet whether he will secure his party’s nomination and be accepted in the grand National Democratic Alliance which will challenge the left in the next election.

If Modi wins reelection in Gujarat this month and is able to present himself as the right’s consensus candidate for the premiership, it will mark a significant change in Indian politics and could herald a shift in Indian foreign-policy thinking. The country has thus far pursued a neutral policy that largely refrains from using force to further its strategic objectives. Modi proposes a more muscular foreign policy that deepens defense relations with the West.