One of India’s most controversial politicians, Narendra Modi, scored a notable victory last weekend when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won assembly elections in the state of Gujarat and he was sworn in (on December 25) as chief minister for a third term.
The result is good for business; whether it is good for social cohesion and harmony between Hindus and Muslims is another matter. Modi represents the hard Hindu-nationalist wing of the BJP and is widely regarded as being strongly anti-Muslim – especially following Gujarat’s devastating Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 when more than 1,000 people died. He is one of India’s most charismatic politicians and is seen as a potential future prime minister, but he is widely feared for his communal views, and is resented by many other BJP leaders because of his autocratic and often arrogant style.
His main success is that, as chief minister, he has built on Gujarat’s strong business and entrepreneurial traditions, bringing new foreign as well as Indian investment to the state and winning the support not only of famous Gujarti tycoons, notably Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries (RIL), but also other such as Ratan Tata, head of the Tata group. Much of this investment, however, has been in large-scale and urban projects that have done little for the rural poor who desperately need better services and job-generating investment. It is a personal tribute to Modi that he has won despite failing in this area.
The main political significance of the election result is the failure of Congress, India’s leading national party, to add significantly to its tally in a state assembly where it has only 59 the 182- seat compared to the BJP’s 117. That is not only bad news for Congress’s national image. It is also a resounding defeat for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has played a leading role in Indian politics since independence in 1947. Sonia Gandhi, Congress’s Italian-born leader and the current head of the dynasty, campaigned widely in Gujarat, but seems to have had little impact. Her son Rahul Gandhi, who is being groomed to be a future prime minister, made one campaign appearance in the state and also failed to motivate voters.
There are two points here. One is that the result illustrates the limitations of a dynasty – that the family involved rarely if ever allows alternative leaders to emerge. Congress, which currently means Sonia Gandhi, always names its chief minister after assembly elections, not before, and usually only after that person has shown due obeisance. So in Gujarat there was no strong Congress chief ministerial candidate to challenge Modi head on. Instead the Congress main campaigner was Sonia Gandhi, who was never going to be chief minister and, while pulling crowds to her meetings, couldn’t generate votes.
The second point is that Congress nationally is now likely to be more wary of risking an early general election over India’s proposed nuclear deal with the United States. Leftist parties that support India’s Congress-led government are threatening to withdraw support if the deal goes ahead, and that could trigger a general election within months. Following the Gujarat result, Congress seems more likely to go slow on the deal than risk an election.
So the Gujarat result is good for the BJP and even more significant for Modi. It is bad news for Congress and the Gandhis, but good for political continuity nationally because it makes a general election in the next few months less likely.