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AMRIT DHILLON

To many Indians, Modi was a vote for dignity Add to ...

Amrit Dhillon is a writer based in New Delhi.

As Indians prepared to receive Friday’s general election results, three things were clear: Unless the exit polls were all wrong, Narendra Modi was set to be prime minister. His dizzying ascent from tea seller to the top was an unprecedented phenomenon historians will study for years to come. And his election campaign was like no other in Indian history – almost presidential for the way it revolved around his persona, rather than his Bharatiya Janata Party or its ideology.

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Mr. Modi dominated the election from the word go, eclipsing rival Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress Party, who appeared unconvincing and uninspiring by comparison.

If Mr. Modi wins around 270 seats as expected, he will have enough seats and support from allies to form the next government after a decade of rule by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Assuming Mr. Modi wins (it wouldn’t be the first time Indian exit polls were wrong), it will be because he offered Indians hope of a better life. Although his message varied, its essence was in lambasting Congress for failing to eliminate poverty despite having ruled for much of the 60 years since independence.

He offered a dream: A modern, developed country with roads, homes, sanitation, electricity and schools. This dream was based on his crucial understanding that the aspirations of Indians are higher than ever before. These aspirations stem from the fact that Indians are sick of deprivation – 400 million people don’t even have electricity.

A certain stoicism used to mark the average Indian. That’s gone. Young Indians – this election saw roughly 100 million first-time voters – want a job, home, scooter or car, nice clothes, clean surroundings, schools for their children and that essential prerequisite for dignity, a toilet.

By Western standards, these are modest expectations. But for India, it is a sea-change.

Mr. Modi made voters feel that under his leadership, such a dream could become a reality, if only partially. Moreover, his approach to poverty was different from Congress’s noblesse oblige, the showing of compassion to the poor by occasionally throwing some crumbs from the exchequer into their outstretched hands.

Mr. Modi’s solution is to let Indians lift themselves out of poverty by giving them the skills and jobs they need to become self-sufficient. This theme resonated powerfully among voters. With 10 million young Indians joining the work force every year, job creation is imperative, but Congress did little on this front.

This is not to say it has been smooth sailing for Mr. Modi. Liberals and many Muslims cannot forgive him for having allowed the deaths of 2,000 Muslims during the barbaric 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, where he was chief minister.

Although Mr. Modi was not convicted by any court, the blemish on his character remains, particularly his refusal to express regret for the deaths. Many liberals assumed he would be unable to overcome this blot, as did Mr. Gandhi, who predicted that 22,000 Indians would be massacred if Mr. Modi came to power.

If ordinary Indians did not let this prevent them from voting for him, the reason was simple: pure loathing for the Congress Party.

The past few years have been marked by appalling incompetence, paralysis, corruption, raging inflation – the indignity of not even being able to afford onions or tomatoes deeply upset the poor – mismanagement of the economy and lack of vision.

Mr. Modi’s achievement is a personal triumph. Just a year ago, few thought that a self-made man who used to sell tea on trains could take on Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the mighty dynasty.

Mr. Modi wasn’t even well-known in some parts of the country, yet he blazed across it like a rock star on tour rather than a politician, using cellphones and the Internet to reach out to the country’s 814 million voters with a message of “better days ahead.”

India has 915 million cellphone users (including 70 million with smartphones), 100 million Facebook users and 213 million people online.

Mr. Modi used every possible medium, including 3D holograms in 1,350 locations to address 14 million people; sending text messages to 130 million voters; enlisting 2.5 million volunteers; and travelling 300,000 kilometres to attend more than 5,000 events while sleeping barely five hours every night.

The result was a sort of personality cult that will alter the way future Indian elections are fought.

Mr. Gandhi worked hard, too, but nothing he said seemed to inspire or thrill. He is the casualty of another watershed change in the Indian mind. In addition to being fed up with hardship, Indians no longer automatically adore the dynasty.

Congress Party politicians badly misread this move away from feudal loyalty and treated Mr. Modi as though he was a vulgar interloper usurping their dynasty’s God-given right to rule.

One such man was Mani Shankar Aiyar, a family loyalist. If Mr. Modi is indeed sworn in as prime minister, Mr. Aiyar will never be allowed to forget the remark he made at a Congress Party meeting in January, mocking Mr. Modi’s ambitions.

“Modi will never be prime minister, but if he wants to sell tea here, we can find a place for him,” said Mr. Aiyar. Apparently, the electorate disagreed.

 

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