I will readily admit that I lack a strong knowledge of Indian politics. However, there seems to be a widespread perception that a major political shift in underway in one of the world's largest nations. That strikes me as something worth exploring.
Narendra Modi's journey to the front step of the prime minister's office in the heart of New Delhi has been long – and unlikely. Born in a small town in Gujarat, the western state two hours' flight from the capital, Modi comes from a caste near the bottom of the tenacious Indian social hierarchy. His parents were poor and conservative and the future prime minister helped out on the family tea stall after school. At around the age of 10 he started attending meetings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a vast and influential Hindu revivalist conservative movement that has been banned three times in India. He only joined formally at a later date.Religious conflict has long been a pervasive feature of life on the subcontinent that is politically divided between the States of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The entire area was under British colonial rule for a century. When the British were eventually forced to pull out there was an effort to deal with the endemic religious conflict by political partition. The ensuing riots resulted in the deaths of over two million people. Things have never really settled down since. In addition to the endless conflicts between India and Pakistan there is a Muslim minority population in India that comprises about 15% of the population. There is a running conflict between them and the majority Hindus that periodically flares into open violence. There are several other smaller religious traditions.
His first job for the RSS involved sweeping for a senior official. Later assigned to the Bharatiya Janata party, the affiliated but independent political party, Modi forged his own path, ousting opponents one by one until he was appointed chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. He has gone on to win three elections there, largely rooted in the consistent economic growth in the state, and these victories have given him a platform from which to outflank the entrenched old guard of the BJP itself.
The charges that he allowed or even encouraged mob violence in 2002 in Gujarat – which he denies and which a supreme court investigation found were not supported by the evidence it was able to examine – reinforce his status as a man who is separate from the political establishment. Around 1,000 people, largely Muslim, died after 59 Hindu pilgrims were killed in an arson attack. A similar stain on a reputation would have finished the career of some – and indeed for many years he was a political pariah, internally as well as internationally. Only in the last two years have the UK, the EU and finally the US ended boycotts.
The linked Guardian article also explores several other important political and economic factors that influenced this election. The Congress Party which was founded by Gandhi and Neruh has been led by their decedents. The vote is in part a protest of its continued inept and corrupt track record. Modi was presented as the preferred candidate of business interests. To some extent this is a shift toward more conservative economic policies. I'm not clear on how closely this would track with a conservative orientation in the US or Europe.
Indian Muslims are expressing anxiety about the change in government. There are Hindu nationalist who are hoping that it will strengthen their hand. Modi generally played this down in his campaign emphasizing economic issues. India has tried to build a tradition of secular government. Historically the Bharatiya Janata party has not followed that tradition. Now that they are in power, it remains to be seen what will happen.