Much of this uncertainty stems from Modi’s style of ruling. He is the archetypal right-wing nationalist strongman: efficient, strident and fervent; riding to power on hope and optimism, and promising strong and decisive leadership and a business-friendly environment. Current (albeit imperfect) analogues to such figures have set a worrying precedent, such as Turkey’s Recep Tayip Erdogan and Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapakse. Both men have developed their countries’ economies greatly and overcome what had previously been perennial issues for their nations (the military in Turkey, and civil war in Sri Lanka). Yet their tenures have come at a cost to freedom of expression and arguably even democracy itself, and have reshaped politics around the leader. They have gone after their critics with as much viciousness as they could get away with in a democracy, and have paid little more than lip service to minorities while marginalising them ever more through their policies and actions. Given how different India is from these nations, both in terms of structure and sheer size, it is not clear whether and how Modi could similarly change Indian political culture despite the structural constraints.
Many have suggested, quite convincingly, that being India’s Prime Minister, and dealing with the constraints that the job imposes regardless of the BJP’s absolute majority, will temper the more unpleasant traits of Narendra Modi himself. Thus, what is more worrying is whether he can control the nastier elements within his party and allies, who might sense they have free rein in silencing their critics or dealing with minorities. While Modi’s record on this is hardly inspiring – in 2002, he was at the very least guilty of a severe lack of control – there is hope that his dominant position both in the party and in government will enable him to act if he shows the will to do so. Whether he does have the will, and especially whether he will retain this will if he falters on his promises of economic development, are crucial questions to which we cannot yet know the answer.
Yet beyond Modi and the BJP, this election ushers in a highly uncertain period for Indian politics more broadly. Most obvious amongst these uncertainties is the future of the Congress Party. Rahul Gandhi has so far failed abysmally as a leader at every chance he has gotten, his sister’s marriage to a politically toxic figure effectively keeps her out of contention, and the Gandhi family, and thus the party, seem reluctant to make space for a new leader. With just 46 seats (only 9 more than the largest regional party), and no indication of having learnt from these elections, they seem unlikely to emerge as a political force in the future. Thus, the Indian centre-left space, and indeed that of ‘national’ opposition to the new government, effectively empty. Will the newly ascendant Aam Aadmi Party ultimately grow to fill that space, or will regional parties and their local concerns form the largest body of opposition? The absence of a strong political opposition would put the uncertainties mentioned above regarding Modi into sharper focus, as even more about the country’s political future would be up to him. What the opposition does, and who it consists of, is thus as important to watch in the next few years as what the government itself does.
The role of civil society also seems uncertain. India’s media, in particular, has seen a dramatic decline in its integrity in recent years, as they have become increasingly beholden to advertising revenues and the corporations that provide them. The leaders of most of these corporations have so far backed Modi, and, with the relatively large amount of money spent on this campaign, the media seems to have largely fallen into line. Yet the future relationship between business and the government in India will not necessarily remain static, and is worth watching. As Iranian politics, for instance, have often shown, the ‘petty bourgeois’ and larger businesses (either home-grown or international corporations) are two different kinds of capitalists, who often want different things. In India, both are supporting Modi, though whether he can deliver economically, and his stance on issues where they diverge (such as Foreign Direct Investment) could change that, and consequently, could lead civil society in new directions.
Yet, in the long term, the largest uncertainty of all is regarding the electorate and voting itself. This election result has seen caste, coalition and regionalism, from being buzzwords that have defined Indian politics for at least two decades, fall greatly in prominence. What is the nature of the ‘Modi wave’? Does it mark a permanent shift in voting patterns, or is it unique to the context of this election? Will it change voting patterns at the state level? And how will voting patterns and political competition more generally change in the future as a consequence of Modi’s time in power?
Election results, especially in India, are usually expected to provide long-awaited answers to crucially important questions. This one has given us an answer we had expected for some time, and has brought into being a vast range of questions. India’s electorate voted for change. What that change will look like will only be revealed with time.