NEW DELHI – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party won a landslide victory in the world’s largest election as voters endorsed his vision of a muscular, assertive and fundamentally Hindu India.
The result represents a stunning vote of confidence in Modi, a charismatic and polarizing politician who is part of a crop of right-leaning populist leaders around the globe.
Official results showed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, on track to win 303 seats in Parliament, well above the 272-seat majority mark. No Indian prime minister has returned to power with a similar mandate in nearly five decades. The size of Modi’s victory was unexpected, surpassing his party’s winning performance in 2014.
The vote is a “mandate for a new India,” Modi told hundreds of cheering supporters on Thursday night after they showered him with flower petals. “If someone has won today, it’s the country. If someone has won today, it’s this democracy.”
The son of a tea seller, Modi first swept to power five years ago on a desire for change and a belief that he could transform this country of more than 1.3 billion people, unshackling the economy and creating millions of jobs.
Such expectations remain unfulfilled, and in this election, Modi instead pushed a message of nationalist pride, telling voters that he was the only candidate who would safeguard the country’s security and fight terrorism.
Modi’s win is a victory for a form of religious nationalism that views India – home to a diversity of faiths – as essentially a Hindu nation and seeks to jettison the secularism promoted by the country’s founders. Although India is about 80 percent Hindu, it is also home to Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and other religious communities.
Like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Victor Orban and President Trump, Modi has stirred voters with a combination of hope and fear, mixing a desire for national greatness with perceived threats from enemies internal and external. He also shares those leaders’ disdain for the news media: Modi did not hold a single news conference during his first term.
Under Modi, India and the United States have become closer as both seek to manage a rising China, and he and Trump appear to have a good relationship. Trump on Thursday tweeted his congratulations to Modi on the “BIG election victory” and said he looked forward to “continuing our important work together!”
Roughly 600 million people, or 67 percent of eligible voters, cast ballots on electronic voting machines in India’s six-week election, which began April 11.
The results are a turning point for India and cement the dominance of Modi and the BJP. “Something fundamentally has shifted” with this vote, said Milan Vaishnav, who heads the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The BJP “has emerged as the hegemonic force in Indian politics.”
The Indian National Congress, the country’s main opposition party, was winning or leading in just 51 seats, a disastrous showing for a once-mighty political force that governed India for most of the country’s post-independence history.
Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan, was unable to find a strategy to counter Modi’s appeal. Gandhi conceded defeat to a BJP candidate in his own constituency in a longtime Congress stronghold. Candidates in Indian elections can run in more than one constituency, and Gandhi also ran for a seat in southern India where he was on track to win.
Gandhi congratulated Modi on the victory but declined to discuss his campaign’s shortcomings. “It doesn’t matter what I think went wrong,” he told reporters. “What matters is that the people of India have decided that Narendra Modi is going to be prime minister. And as an Indian person, I fully respect the people’s verdict.”
The opposition had “neither a program nor a leader nor a narrative,” Pavan Varma, a spokesman for a regional party aligned with the BJP, told the Indian television channel NDTV. The BJP, meanwhile, had Modi both as a candidate and a potent election machine, he said. It also had more money than any other party in the race by several orders of magnitude.
Modi’s supporters exulted at the outcome. The win is “miraculous,” wrote Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Twitter. India has proved that it “wants growth and a leadership that believes in country first.”
Several world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, congratulated Modi on his reelection.
Although Modi focused the election debate on national security – particularly after a terrorist attack in February in Kashmir – the next government’s major challenges promise to be economic. Last year, unemployment rose to a 45-year high, and there are worrisome signals that Indian consumers are buying less, slowing the broader economy. Rising oil prices are another challenge for a country that depends on imported crude.
Stocks briefly touched a record high Thursday before retreating. India’s business community had generally favored a Modi reelection for the continuity it would offer in economic policymaking.
Bread-and-butter issues “got very little time and space” in this election, said Puja Mehra, the author of “The Lost Decade,” a new book about the Indian economy. Modi was “able to sway voter attention [away] from the economic hardships they faced” and toward issues central to his campaign, such as national security, religion and the importance of strong leadership, Mehra said.
Modi also benefited from considerable popularity among voters, many of whom view him as a hard-working, corruption-free politician. Modi, who was born in the state of Gujarat, comes from humble roots and rose through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing organization that seeks to make India a “Hindu nation.”
As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi modernized infrastructure and successfully courted investment by domestic and foreign businesses. In 2002, the country’s worst communal violence in decades occurred on his watch as chief minister: More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed by mobs. Members of his own party wanted him to resign.
Since Modi became prime minister in 2014, reports of violence by Hindu extremists have increased, including lynchings in the name of protecting cows, which some Hindus consider sacred. Some Muslims say they are increasingly fearful about the country’s direction. In the election campaign, senior BJP leaders used anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Modi’s decisive mandate means that India will move further toward becoming a majoritarian democracy, said Suhas Palshikar, a political scientist and columnist. “It is not so much that the formal institutional structure will change,” he said. “What will change are the social and cultural values in the society.” Religious minorities will be “reduced to secondary citizens,” while Hindu nationalists will “have free play.”
As prime minister, Modi tried to implement an ambitious agenda while consolidating his grip on power. The government has built roads, created a high-profile cleanliness drive and implemented a nationwide value-added tax. At the same time, media freedom has declined, and government pressure on critics and independent institutions has grown.
Two months before voting began, a suicide bomber killed 40 Indian security personnel in the disputed region of Kashmir. In response, Modi launched a retaliatory airstrike on an alleged terrorist training camp near the town of Balakot in Pakistan, an unprecedented step for India.
The government has provided no proof that the airstrike killed any militants. In the confrontation that followed, an Indian fighter pilot was captured by Pakistan and six Indian soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash now thought to be a case of friendly fire. But on the campaign trail, Modi repeatedly cited the air attack as proof of his government’s ability to fight terrorism and his toughness in matters of national security.
After official campaigning ended, Modi went to a Hindu pilgrimage site high in the Himalayas where he prayed and meditated overnight in a cave, an exercise in piety broadcast nationwide.
Gandhi, the Congress Party leader, tried to dent Modi’s dominance. He attacked his rival as threatening the secularism promoted by the country’s founders, and as failing to create jobs for millions of young people and not helping struggling farmers.
Modi struck back, calling Gandhi the scion of a corrupt dynasty. Gandhi’s father, grandmother and great-grandfather all served as prime ministers of India. (The family is not related to independence leader Mohandas Gandhi.)
At the Congress Party headquarters in Delhi on Thursday afternoon, journalists waited in vain in the shade of a large tree for party leaders to comment on the election results.The premises were quiet except for the chirping of birds and the noise of passing cars.
Party workers spoke in low voices about the results, their expressions glum. “These elections were won by telling lies to the people,” said Dinesh Kaushik, a grass-roots Congress official. Modi will “go to any extent to get power.”
The streets leading to the new BJP headquarters were packed with jubilant Modi supporters, who distributed sweets and set off firecrackers to celebrate the win. Women wore saris printed with Modi’s face, while young men wearing scarves and carrying flags in the BJP’s signature color – saffron – danced to the sound of drums and trumpets.
“The reason the BJP won massively is because of the Balakot airstrikes,” said Rishabh Jain, 32. “It’s because Modi took care of national security.” Jain said he hoped Modi would focus on development and advance the agenda of Hindutva – the ideology underlying Hindu nationalism. “We expect a strong country now,” he said.
The Washington Post’s Tania Dutta contributed to this report.