Modi: Breaking the Mold of Indian Politics (Part 1 of 2)

Narendra Modi’s historic victory means he now strides over Indian politics in a way not seen since Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s (credit: Vibhijain).

Memo #296

Narendra Modi’s Historic Electoral Victory.

By John Harriss – jharriss [at]


That Narendra Modi should have won India’s 16th General Election is no great surprise.

But the scale of his triumph is.

Together with most other commentators I expected Modi to win, but thought it likely that he would be constrained by the demands of coalition politics—exactly as his predecessor as prime minister of India from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Atal Behari Vajpayi had been during 1998-2004.

The Modi-led BJP has, however, won a clear majority on its own, taking 282 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. This is the first time in thirty years that a single party has won a majority. The long era of coalition politics in India is over, probably for a long while. Mr. Modi strides over Indian politics in a way that only, for a time, Mrs. Indira Gandhi did in the early 1970s, and her father Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s.

Even a year ago the BJP was not in good shape, in spite of the woefully poor performance of the Congress-led Government of India. But after the announcement last September that Modi would be its candidate for prime minister—against the wishes of many of its senior leaders—the fortunes of the party were transformed. As I know from surveys of youth in Delhi, Bihar and Tamil Nadu, conducted with Indian colleagues at the beginning of this year, it was Modi who excited them not the BJP.

That the election was about the man and not the party was reflected in the fact that the BJP did not announce its manifesto until the first day of the election. Modi ran a presidential style campaign—the first time this has happened in Indian politics. It became increasingly clear during the run-up to the elections that his charisma, clever rhetoric and platform of restoring high economic growth and improving governance, appealed very strongly to broad sections of the population. Efforts by some economists to prick the bubble of the idea that Modi had brought about some sort of an economic miracle in Gujarat cut no ice with most of the electorate.

Still, the scale of the defeat of the Congress, historically India’s ‘national party,’ goes beyond anyone’s expectations, with only 44 seats—down 70 from its previous all-time low of 1999 when it won only 114 seats. One of the crucial questions for the future is whether the party can quickly recover—even to become an effective opposition. It badly needs to find new leadership from amongst the several capable younger leaders, and from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Read Part 2 of this memo HERE.


John Harriss is Professor and former Director of the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he specializes in Indian politics, civil society, and political economy.

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Narendra Modi’s historic victory means he now strides over Indian politics in a way not seen since Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s (credit: Vibhijain).


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