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The Modi Wave: India’s Election and American Interests

The Modi Wave: India’s Election and American Interests

India’s election has produced a decisive majority for the political alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi. Turnout was higher, as a percentage of eligible voters, than in any election since 1984, and exit polling showed an overwhelming demand for change from the 551 million Indians who went to the polls. The sweep of the BJP’s victory was striking: The party won 283 seats in parliament, clearing a simple majority of 272, and with its coalition partners it now controls 336 out of 543 seats. The ruling Congress party won only 44 seats (it previously held 209). Polls show Modi enjoyed majority support from upper- and lower-caste Indians, rural and urban voters, and Indians in the populous north and wealthier south. Failures of governance and hopes for change have united the world’s most diverse nation across its otherwise yawning socioeconomic chasms.

Incoming Prime Minister Modi promises to reinvigorate an economy whose annual growth rates have halved from near double-digit rates in recent years. He has pledged to tackle endemic corruption and create a slimmed-down, more effective state through what he calls "maximum governance, minimal government." Modi cites his own record as chief minister of Gujarat, which has grown faster than China for two decades, as an example of the pro-growth, no-nonsense management experience he will bring to New Delhi as prime minister. He also promises to more forcefully pursue India’s interests abroad, including by responding firmly to Chinese designs on India’s northeastern territories. America has high stakes in an Indian resurgence that could help drive global growth and tilt Asia’s power balance in a democratic direction.

Restoring economic vigor through good governance and decisive reform is the clear mandate of India’s new government. Growth has plummeted to less than 5 percent; annual inflation is almost twice the rate of GDP expansion, hitting average Indians right in their pocketbooks. As many as 800 million Indian citizens live on less than $2 per day, in a land that was once the world’s largest economy, comprising some 25 percent of global GDP. One out of every two children is malnourished. Modi has promised "toilets before temples" in a bow to his country’s essential development requirements over the religious agenda associated with elements of his party.

In the heady days of go-go growth in the 2000s, many millions of Indians internalized the notion that their country was destined for economic and geopolitical greatness. They feel like the Congress party lost the plot and let them down. It is appropriate that they have voted in a prime minister who has managed the economy of India’s most industrialized and globalized state. Narendra Modi is the first prime minister to be born after Indian independence. His election is a metaphor for Indian voters’ declaration of independence from the Congress party, which has ruled India for most of its modern history and has suffered its worst electoral defeat ever. As veteran party leader Jairam Ramesh put it, "Our performance is worse than the worst-case scenario."

This election may prove a turning point in India’s political history. Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta describes the journey of the Indian voter since 1947 in three stages — from gratitude to the Congress party to delivering India’s independence, to grievance as a result of underdevelopment and stifled opportunity, to aspiration for a better future under conditions of dynamic economic growth. Modi’s ascension represents the victory of the aspirational group, now comprising hundreds of millions of Indians and growing every day. They have extraordinarily high expectations for his government.

So does the United States. The greatest momentum in U.S.-Indian relations came during the 2000s, when India was growing at rates approaching 10 percent. The growth Modi promises should restore energy to the bilateral relationship. A flourishing India undergoing vigorous reform will be a better business partner for American firms than one limping along under state socialism. A dynamic India is more likely to have the confidence to engage the United States as a diplomatic partner, rather than retreating into the old shibboleths of non-alignment and third-worldism. A surging India is also more likely to pursue the kind of activist foreign policy that makes it a shaper, rather than a victim, of world events.

This matters in light of India’s symmetry of interests with the United States. A revitalized India will be the southern anchor of an Asian balance of power that does not tilt too heavily towards China. It would be an example to the emerging world of economic transformation under democratic institutions. A thriving India could uplift its region, including troubled Pakistan. In short, the United States has a considerable stake in India’s success. If Modi can go even partway towards meeting his people’s aspirations, American interests will benefit too.