On the ragged edges of a fast-changing city, Sanjeev Pal is a man on the move. The taxi driver has little time these days to stop and talk politics. He has rent to pay, loan instalments on his new car to meet and a family to look after back in his village 500 miles away. Time is tight.
Not tight enough to stop him voting though. “This was a duty, not a right only. We had to pick the best man to represent us,” the father-of-two said.
That man, according to Pal, is Narendra Modi, the 63 year-old provincial politician who, with 31% of votes cast in a record turnout, won a landslide victory this month. Analysts say the election is the most significant in India for decades, possibly since the country won its independence from Britain in 1947.
On Monday, Modi will be inaugurated as his nation’s 15th prime minister. From relative political obscurity, the former tea-seller has risen to the highest executive office in this developing, troubled nation of 1.25 billion people. His Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party now commands a crushing majority in the lower house of parliament. The Congress party, in power for all but 18 of the 67 years since independence, has been reduced to a historic low.
This alone has already fulfilled one of Pal’s hopes. “This country needs someone who can get things done. And that leader needs to be strong, with real authority.”
Pal lives and works in Dwarka, a new town that has sprung up over the last 20 years on the outer rim of Delhi, the sprawling Indian capital which is home to 17 million people. Dwarka is a zone of transition. Less than a generation ago, it was just fields and scrub. Now there are a million people living in rows of apartments blocks, short of water but served by scores of private schools, malls, a luxury hotel, a metro line, dusty parks and the occasional temple. Fruit-sellers hawk mangos outside air-conditioned coffee bars and carts laden with buffalo dung cakes used for fuel hold up Audi SUVs.
It is the rapid and traumatic change leading to such contrasts that explains the BJP’s win, and has given rise to the enormous expectations now centred on Modi. A sharp economic slowdown after decades of boom has only sharpened the hope that, as the new prime minister told campaign meetings, “good days are coming”.
Despite the buffaloes, Dwarka is part of the West Delhi parliamentary seat, an urban constituency. In elections a decade ago, there were only 120 such seats out of 543. Now there are 180, according to Rajeev Karandaikar, a statistician and election specialist at the Chennai Mathematical Institute, plus at least another 100 which are semi-urban. For the first time, the BJP’s vote share across cities and India’s vast countryside was similar, a significant reason for the party’s success.
“There was enormous support for Modi and deep anger at Congress. There was a definite swing across all social and economic categories,” said Karandaikar.
In the capital, Congress lost in every seat. In West Delhi, Parvesh Verma, a debutant 36-year-old BJP candidate, beat a Congress veteran by 460,000 votes out of 1.3m cast. The newly formed Aam Aadmi, or common man party, came second. “Everybody – Muslims, Hindu, ladies, boys – wanted a strong government and a strong prime minister. People have faith in Mr Modi. He has a clear vision for the country and he will definitely deliver,” Verma said. The new MP’s father was once chief minister of Delhi, a reminder of how politics in India is often a family affair.
Vinay Mishra, the son of the outgoing Congress MP and an organiser of his 61-year-old father’s unsuccessful campaign, blamed “anti-incumbency” – the traditional reaction of Indian voters against those in power – as well as a “communication gap between the government and the common man”. Mishra, 31, diplomatically avoided blaming Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s most famous political dynasty and the face of the Congress campaign, preferring to suggest the 43 year old Cambridge-graduate had been badly advised.
If a general sense of instability, insecurity and drift helped bring Modi to power, the desire for rapid progress, order and direction is likely to now prove an immense challenge for the new prime minister. Pal, the taxi driver, believes that Modi, who is seen as having brought development to the state of Gujarat while in power there from 2001 until last week, can do the same on a national level.
So do businessman Vipul and Shilpi Sharma, both 33. The couple commute from Dwarka, driving three hours everyday to work in the booming hub of Gurgaon, 15 kms away. Vipul runs a business. Shilpi works for a multinational. With their Hyundai and top-of-the-range smartphones, they are part of what overseas analysts call the Indian middle class and poorer locals call simply “rich people”.
Long-term BJP supporters, the Sharmas are not attracted by the nationalism, or the religious revivalism that is part of the party’s ideological heritage, but because “India has been under-performing” at home and abroad during the last decade of Congress government. Shilpi believes that with Modi in charge she will have a better chance of realising her dream to have a holiday in Europe, the UK or Canada.
The biggest election winner for the BJP may have been young people. Around 100m voters cast a ballot for the first time and some pollsters estimate that up to 90% of 18 to 25 year olds, increasingly urbanised, aware and aspirational across the country, voted for Modi. In one Dwarka coffee bar, Sartak Menon, 20, said the new prime minister “aims to give the youth and the poor more power to have a better lifestyle”. According to Indian government statistics, about a fifth of Indians live in poverty, down from more than a third in 2004. Even among the most deprived, sensibilities are changing. The desire for a hand-up rather than a hand-out, particularly among those who are only just beginning to see their standard of living improve, is a significant factor, say political scientists.
“A lot of the dole programmes are very popular, but just not enough any more,” said Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Migration, cellphones and economic growth have reshaped the realm of the possible.”
Vaishnav points to a blurring of the divide between town and country in India, and says surveys show voters everywhere share the same preoccupations of jobs, corruption and price rises.
Another factor is the decline of caste, the tenacious Indian social hierarchy which still determines the status of hundreds of millions. The realities of living in overcrowded Indian cities or zones like Dwarka have made reinforcing social separation and discrimination through rituals or violence much harder. Pal said that, though he previously always voted for a party representing lower castes such as his own, he was not even aware that Modi was from a similar community.
On the very edge of Dwarka, where fields meet cement, Choudhury Dilichand, a retired teacher said he voted Congress at the election. The 73-year-old, who recently sold six acres of land bought for a pittance in his village 20 years ago for millions of dollars, said the scale of BJP’s victory was easily explained.
“The young people voted for Modi because he is honest and there is hope that something can be done for jobs and development and so on. If Modi can keep clean people only in government, then something can be done. But if he can’t, then there will be problems,” Dilichand said.
Some observers voice concerns. Since taking power Modi has signalled a policy of conciliation abroad and unity at home, but fears remain that if the new prime minister cannot fulfil the huge expectations of his countrymen, he or his party could be tempted to shift to the right.
The very factors underpinning his victory could make this a tempting strategy to adopt. Over half of all respondents in a poll published in the India Today news magazine said Modi represented the national interest and the people’s aspirations, but the proportion among Muslims, who number around 140 million in India, was only 16%.
By 2050, at least half a billion people in India are predicted to move from rural areas to towns and cities, fundamentally changing the nature of the country. Many will end up in places like Dwarka.
“The traditional hypothesis is that urbanisation is part of a modernisation process, which involves an inevitable moving away from traditional affiliations of community such as religion and caste,” said Vaishnav.
But it is also possible that the dislocations associated with rapid change can lead to communities consolidating and this can provide an opportunity for politicians “harping on those social cleavages”, he said.
For the moment, Pal the taxi driver is relieved to be a little less worried about the future now than he was a month ago. “I know where Modi came from. Only a man who has been poor can really understand what being poor means,” he said.
• This article was amended on 26 May 2014. An earlier version said Modi was India’s 18th prime minister.
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