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May 16, 2014 10:17 AM Big Change in India

By Ed Kilgore

It’s been predicted for quite some time, but still: the concession by India’s traditional governing party, Congress, to what looks to be an overwhelming defeat in national elections is a big deal for the world’s largest democracy.

The winning Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Gujarat State Chief Minister Narendra Modi, will likely be able to form a government without seeking coalitions with smaller parties. Modi is a long-time activist in the highly controversial Hindu national group RSS, which provided a significant portion of the BJP’s voter mobilization effort. It was also heavily complicit in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, in which 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in religious violence.

Though Modi is mainly known for advocacy of economic deregulation, and for offering relatively clean and stable government in Gujarat, his RSS ties and memories of 2002 will inevitably create fears among India’s religious minorities, particularly Muslims. Meanwhile Congress’ loss could lead to a new stage in the Gandhi family dynasty, as reported by the New York Times’ Ellen Berry:

Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent to the political dynasty that forms the Congress party’s backbone, appeared headed for a narrow victory in his own home constituency, a stronghold he won by more than 300,000 votes in 2009.
In a humiliation for Mr. Gandhi, 43, a group of workers gathered around party headquarters in the capital city, chanting “Bring Priyanka, Save Congress,” a reference to his younger sister, who is seen as the more charismatic politician.

Many observers have emphasized that Modi’s victory depended on an especially strong showing among young voters, who are largely indifferent to political rivalries that go back to the colonial era. At one point during the campaign, Rahul Gandhi brought up the complicity of RSS in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, to little avail. Here’s Berry again:

Mr. Modi seemed to benefit from changes in the electorate. Nearly 100 million new voters were registered ahead of this vote, including a vast influx of young people, and turnout broke all previous records, hitting 66.4 percent.
Compared with their elders, these young voters were unmoved by the decade-old history of the Gujarat riots, which had prompted many Western governments, including the United States, to impose visa bans on Mr. Modi. They also proved far less emotionally bound to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has served as the backbone of the Congress party since India won its independence, surviving the wrenching assassinations of two of its members.
Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express, a daily newspaper, called them “post-ideological Indians.”
“These people are born after Indira Gandhi’s assassination,” he said. “For a lot of them, the 2002 riots are not even a faint blur. What is imprinted on their memory is five years of nongovernance, and a massive loss of white-collar jobs.

There’s something rather unsettlingly familiar about a politician with a background in a paramilitary nationalist group accused of fomenting communal hatred obtaining power via a purely economic message. But perhaps India’s democracy is just strong enough to domesticate RSS.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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