Narendra Modi has won a historic landslide re-election victory that gives him unchallenged power to forge ahead with his efforts to build a “New India,” based on a stronger economy and greater stature on the global stage.
The prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata party secured its second consecutive single-party parliamentary majority, avoiding dependence on coalition partners that could act as brakes on either a bold economic reform agenda, or moves to reshape India as an openly majoritarian Hindu state.
A tea-seller’s son who eschewed family life to join India’s rightwing political movement, Mr Modi has now amassed political strength not commanded by any Indian politician since Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first post-independence prime minister, or his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who also served as premier.
“He will wield the sort of power that we have not see anybody wield in India since Indira Gandhi in her heyday,” said Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Business elites — many disappointed that Mr Modi did not undertake more aggressive market-oriented reforms in his first term — will now hope for more accelerated changes to help unleash oft-touted, but yet to be realised, economic potential.
“Time for transformation of India. Time for deep reform. I dream of us as a global superpower in my lifetime,” Uday Kotak, the chief executive of Kotak Mahindra Bank tweeted after Mr Modi’s victory.
While vote-counting will continue throughout Thursday, the BJP, and its political partners in the National Democratic Alliance, were leading in more than 340 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament.
The BJP itself was ahead in almost 300 parliamentary constituencies, a stunning performance in a country that endured decades of fractious coalition governments until 2014, when the BJP won the first single-party majority of any party since 1984.
In his first public reaction to his historic victory, Mr Modi wrote on Twitter: “Together we grow. Together we prosper. Together we will build a strong and inclusive India. India wins yet again.”
Later, addressing supporters at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi, Mr Modi vowed to put the divisiveness of the bitter campaign behind him.
“It is not important for me to think about who said what during elections,” he added. “I will have to walk with everybody together. Despite this massive mandate, I will remain humble.”
The results showed that voters kept their faith with Mr Modi, despite his turbulent first five-year tenure, when he struggled to deliver the economic revival he had promised.
Many Indians still see Mr Modi as the leader most likely to deliver economic growth, and the millions of new jobs needed to reduce poverty.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, commented: “It’s an extraordinary political achievement to be able to mobilise this kind of power, and gain this kind of popularity. The question is with this kind of concentration of power that is going to emerge, what kind of risks does it hold?”
The election results are a blow to the 134-year-old Indian National Congress, which led India’s colonial struggle, and dominated Indian politics for decades after independence.
Now led by political princeling Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather all became prime minister, Congress only marginally improved on its 2014 battering, when it won just 44 seats, the worst result in its history. As of early afternoon on Thursday, Congress was leading in slightly more than 50 seats.
“It doesn’t matter what I think went wrong,” Mr Gandhi told reporters after the extent of the Congress defeat became clear. “People have spoken clearly. We have to accept that Narendra Modi has won this election and I congratulate him.
“The BJP has replaced the Congress as the pole around which politics revolves in the country,” said Milan Vaishnav, the author of several books on Indian politics.
Adding to the humiliation, Mr Gandhi lost his family seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, to former soap opera star and cabinet minister Smriti Irani. The constituency has been held by members of his family — including his uncle, father and mother — for more than 50 years.
The Bombay Stock Exchange’s benchmark Sensex index jumped 2.5 per cent in early trading on Thursday, as early trends indicated a Modi victory. But by the afternoon, the Sensex slid into red, and closed down 0.7 per cent.
India’s general election was held against the backdrop of widespread rural distress after years of drought and depressed commodity prices squeezed farmers’ incomes, and hopes of widespread job creation failed to materialise.
But a military showdown in February with neighbouring Pakistan — and India’s missile strike against an alleged terror training camp — led to a surge of nationalistic feeling, which allowed Mr Modi to turn public attention away from his economic record to the issue of national security.
“It was a very critical turning point,” said Yogendra Yadav, leader of Swaraj India, which advocates for higher standards in political life. “Towards the end of January, there was a critical point where the BJP could do nothing right. But with the missile strike, the negative spiral is stopped and turns into a positive spiral. The BJP got in control of the narrative.”
Harnessing Mr Modi’s popularity, the BJP defied predictions and held on to much of its support in the poorer, Hindi-speaking heartland, its traditional stronghold. It has lost some seats in Uttar Pradesh, where two rival opposition parties have united to defeat it, but compensated by making strong inroads in West Bengal and Odisha, where it previously had limited support.
Among the politicians riding to power on Mr Modi’s coattails was a Hindu extremist, Pragya Singh Thakur, who is awaiting trial on terrorism charges for her alleged involvement in a 2008 bombing that killed eight people in a Muslim burial ground.
Ms Thakur was handpicked to run for parliament by Mr Modi, who had praised her as a “saint” but later stirred controversy by praising Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, a rightwing Hindu nationalist, as a “patriot.”
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