By Eric Bellman
India has wrapped up the largest election in the history of democracy and once again chosen the popular nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi. How he uses the mandate in the next five years will reverberate around the world as the South Asian nation plays a larger role in the global economy and delicate geopolitics of Asia.
Votes were cast over five and a half weeks and took seven phases to accommodate the country's almost 900 million eligible voters. Millions of security and voting officials shifted from region to region to take care of the close to 600 million people who eventually showed up to choose their candidates and get their finger marked with indelible ink to keep them from voting more than once.
India is impossibly diverse, more a continent than a country, with 22 official languages and thousands of regional, tribal and caste groups. This diversity is reflected in an election that had hundreds of different parties fielding candidates this time.
In recent decades, it has usually been one of two parties--the Indian National Congress or Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party--leading the government. But with such a variety of competing communities, parties and regional issues, it has been rare in that time for a single party to achieve a majority on its own. When the BJP did it in 2014, it was the first time in 30 years. And while more than 40 other parties won seats this election, it looks like the BJP has won a majority this year as well.
While campaigning, Mr. Modi attracted massive crowds to his rallies. His message was that he deserved to be re-elected because he was the best placed to protect the country and raise its global profile, economically and politically.
But unlike the 2014 election, BJP leaders seemed to tone down pledges connected to economic development and reform, and turn up the volume on Hindu nationalist issues the party has long campaigned for. That included promising a national ban on the slaughter of cows, which are revered by Hindus, a crackdown on illegal immigrants, most of whom are Muslim, and an end to the special treatment for Muslims, who make up about 14% of the country.
Congress party president Rahul Gandhi--whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were each prime minister at one time--tried to unite a mix of opposition parties against Mr. Modi. Their message was that Mr. Modi's policies had hurt the economy and his party's focus on Hindu pride was marginalizing minorities and chipping away at the roots of the country's secular democracy.
That didn't stop Mr. Modi and his allies from returning to power. Now the country is wondering whether the nationalist turn he took during elections are signs of what will happen in the next five years or whether the prime minister will return to focus more on development.
India is the fastest-expanding large economy in the world and an increasingly important engine for global growth, particularly as China's growth slows. If Mr. Modi can use his mandate to improve how the economy is managed and break down some bureaucratic barriers to growth--such as restrictions on land purchases as well as hiring and firing rules--it could help India accelerate its expansion, and achieve closer to 10% growth a year up from about 7.5% now.
Critics are worried that it is more likely Mr. Modi will use the mandate to make the nation of 1.3 billion people less tolerant of minorities and less democratic as more power shifts to the prime minister's office.
Mr. Modi will also decide what part the country plays in the rapidly shifting geopolitics in the region. India could help counterbalance an increasingly assertive China and even mitigate some of the fallout from the Washington-Beijing trade tensions.
The election win sets Mr. Modi up for bolder moves on the foreign-policy front. But analysts expect him to focus mostly on rallying allies to crack down on Pakistan, which he says doesn't do enough to rein in militant groups that operate within its borders and attack India.
Write to Eric Bellman at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 23, 2019 05:43 ET (09:43 GMT)
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