Narendra Modi, India’s ‘Watchman,’ Heads for Historic Election Victory – Smart Media Magazine

Narendra Modi, India’s ‘Watchman,’ Heads for Historic Election Victory

NEW DELHI — Narendra Modi, the most dominating and divisive prime minister India has produced in decades, powered his way Thursday toward this nation’s biggest re-election win in decades.

His brand of brawny Hindu nationalism and pro-business policies seem to have played stunningly well, despite concerns that he had not delivered on promises to create jobs.

With most of the votes counted, Mr. Modi was on track to be the first Indian prime minister to lead his party to majorities in Parliament in back-to-back elections in nearly 50 years.

[Read updates about the overwhelming victory for Mr. Modi and the B.J.P.]

Many Indians see Mr. Modi, 68, as a nationalist icon. He has confronted China, nearly gone to war with Pakistan and brought India closer to the United States. He calls himself India’s chowkidar — watchman — and his success mirrors the rise of right-leaning populist figures around the world.

While he has built a reputation as a crusader who speaks the common people’s language, his detractors say his policies are pulling India’s delicate social fabric apart. His commitment to giving more power to the country’s Hindu majority has struck fear in the Muslim minority and left the country increasingly polarized.

Political analysts call him “larger than life,” “a cinematic character,” and someone who displays an innate sense for “what people are looking for.”

“Modi has embedded himself in every Indian’s consciousness,” said Arati Jerath, a prominent newspaper columnist.

In contrast, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party and the scion of a long political dynasty, is widely perceived, even by some supporters, as cultivating too gentle an image. And though his party cast itself as a unifying force, the results indicated that Congress, once dominant, had suffered a second consecutive disastrous loss.

The election turnout was one for the history books — the largest democratic exercise ever. In seven phases over 39 days, more than 600 million Indians cast ballots at a million polling stations, spread across densely populated megacities and far-flung villages, from high in the Himalayan mountains to tropical islands in the Andaman Sea.

Experts say the force of Mr. Modi’s personality, with many Indians intensely for him or against him, drove turnout to 67 percent, the highest this nation has ever seen.

In school, Mr. Modi was known as an average student, but he demonstrated a talent for theater and debating. His forcefulness propelled him up the R.S.S. ranks.

He also deserted the young woman that his parents had arranged for him to marry when he was a teenager. Even now it is unclear if Mr. Modi ever lived with her.

He didn’t enter politics until much later in life. In his 20s and 30s, he was a preacher for the R.S.S. and then a worker for the B.J.P. Colleagues remember him as passionate, dedicated and efficient.

He oversaw the secret printing of banned pamphlets pushing Hindutva, the belief in the primacy of the Hindu religion and way of life. Analysts say he remains an “ultranationalist” at his core.

“He is very divisive,” said Mrs. Jerath, the newspaper columnist. “He believes in the politics of polarization: us against them, Hindus against Muslims, rich against poor, poor against rich.”

A defining moment came for him in February 2002, when the state of Gujarat exploded in religious riots. Mr. Modi, who was chief minister of the state, was blamed for not stopping the carnage, which included more than 1,000 deaths, most of them Muslim.

From then on, Mr. Modi would be known among the Hindu right as a hero. Many Muslims considered him a killer.

But in the next few years, Mr. Modi deftly switched tack. He became a friend of free enterprise and helped attract thousands of manufacturing jobs to Gujarat.

Business people and middle class voters began to rally around him, seeing him as someone who could get results. At the same time, the dynastic Congress party, which led India for most of its history since independence from Britain, was collapsing, racked by infighting, corruption and the absence of an inspiring leader.

These two story lines converged in 2014, the first time Mr. Modi ran for prime minister.

He emphasized infrastructure, development and rooting out corruption. His B.J.P. won a landslide, and Congress suffered its biggest defeat — winning only 44 seats out of 543, the party’s worst showing in its 100-year-plus history.

Once in office, Mr. Modi moved swiftly to consolidate power, sidelining ministries and making big decisions within a very small circle of advisers. He quickly announced a series of high-profile, symbolic programs.

The twin blows battered the economy and brought job growth to a standstill in a country where 5 million young people enter the work force every year. In the quarter that ended in December, the country’s economy grew 6.6 percent — enviable for many countries, but the slowest rate in five years.

Among the most disappointed with Mr. Modi’s economic promises were India’s farmers. Half of India relies on agriculture and protests erupted around the country, with some farmers dumping nearly worthless milk into the streets.

Still, Mr. Modi continued to cut red tape for businesses, invest in major infrastructure like roads and tackle some of India’s biggest problems. His most ambitious welfare program, a new attempt at universal health care for the poor, was nicknamed Modicare.

As the campaign began, many predicted that the country’s economic challenges would make it difficult for Mr. Modi and the B.J.P. to keep control of Parliament.

But everything changed on Feb. 14, when a suicide bomber blew up a bus of paramilitary forces in Pulwama in the state of Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim as their own. Jingoism surged, and so did Mr. Modi’s approval ratings. He campaigned hard on national security, and voters seemed to respond to that and his tilt back toward Hindu nationalism.

“The scale of the win is remarkable,’’ said Menaka Guruswamy, a senior lawyer in India’s Supreme Court and lecturer at Columbia Law School. But she added:

“I don’t know of a word that begins to capture how deeply divided we are at this point.’’

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