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 stridently Hindu India.
With more than half the votes counted, official results showed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party leading in 300 parliamentary constituencies, well above the 272-seat majority mark in parliament. If that number holds, the BJP will win more seats in this election than it did in 2014, which was already considered a landmark win.
The result represents a stunning mandate for Modi, a charismatic and polarizing politician who towers over his rivals. No Indian prime minister has returned to power with a similarly large mandate in nearly five decades.
Modi first swept to power five years ago on a desire for change and the belief that he would transform this country of more than 1.3 billion people, unshackling the economy and creating millions of jobs.
Such expectations remain unfulfilled, but in this election, Modi pushed a message of nationalist pride and told voters he was the only candidate who would safeguard the country’s security and combat terrorism.
Modi’s win is a victory for a form of religious nationalism that views India as a fundamentally Hindu nation and seeks to jettison the secularism promoted by the country’s founders. While India is roughly 80 percent Hindu, it is also home to Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and other religious communities.
Nearly 900 million people were eligible to vote in the six-week long election. The vote-counting began Thursday morning and full results are expected in the evening local time, but Modi and senior members of his party have declared victory.
Thursday’s results represent a tectonic shift that cements the BJP’s dominance of Indian politics under Modi’s leadership. “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 leading in just 50 seats, a disastrous showing for a once-mighty political force that governed India for most of its post-independence history. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan, failed to find a strategy to counter Modi’s appeal. Preliminary results showed that Gandhi was battling to retain his own seat in the Congress stronghold of Amethi.
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 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. “It’s nothing short of a landslide,” wrote Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu on Twitter, calling the result a political tsunami that had swept the country. Indians have “voted for a clear, unambiguous choice,” he wrote. Several world leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chinese President Xi Jinping, congratulated Modi on his victory as votes were still being counted.
While 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.
Stocks rose to a record high on Thursday as investors welcomed the news of a probable Modi victory, offering a sense of stability in economic policymaking.
Bread-and-butter issues “got very little time and space” in this election, said Puja Mehra, the author of a new book on 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.
Modi also benefited from considerable popularity among voters, many of whom view him as a corruption-free politician. The son of a tea seller, Modi comes from humble roots and rose through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a group that seeks to make India a “Hindu nation.”
As chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi modernized infrastructure and successfully courted investment by domestic and foreign businesses. In 2002, he presided over the country’s worst communal violence in decades, when 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 engaged in 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 “have free play.”
Two months before voting began, a suicide bomber killed 40 security Indian security forces in the disputed region of Kashmir. Modi launched a retaliatory airstrike on an alleged terrorist training camp within Pakistan, an unprecedented step for India.
There is no proof the strikes killed any militants. In the confrontation that followed, an Indian pilot was captured by Pakistan and six Indian soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash now believed to be a case of friendly fire. But on the campaign trail, Modi repeatedly cited the strikes as proof of his government’s unique ability to combat terrorism and his toughness in matters of national security.
After the official campaigning period ended, Modi went to a Hindu pilgrimage site high in Himalayan mountains where he prayed and mediated overnight in a cave, an exercise in piety broadcast across the nation.
Gandhi, the Congress party leader, tried to dent Modi’s dominance. He attacked Modi for threatening the secularism promoted by the country’s founders and for failing to create jobs for millions of young people or to help 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).