What's next for India's Modi after poll win?
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What's next for India's Modi after poll win?

This year has turned out to be the time of major elections: Mexico, South Africa, Taiwan, European Union, Pakistan, Russia, soon the United Kingdom, and in November, the United States. And now India has just finished national elections for parliament, reelecting a conservative and populist prime minister who has delivered progress for the people during the past decade and who now embarks on a historic third term.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's win was narrow and bittersweet, with a reduced majority, given a divisive campaign and a stronger-than-expected challenge from the opposition. Indeed, the powerful Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flagged winning only 240 seats on its own, thus calling for a coalition government.

Mr Modi, now 73 years of age, is variously described as a populist and polarising figure. His BJP party, largely Hindu nationalist, has broadened its appeal, emerging as the guiding political and economic driver of long-awaited prosperity for a land still facing the undertow of poverty but with a chance now for upward change.

The party has also tread a careful line between the country's 80% Hindu majority and a 14% Muslim minority, along with smaller Christian and Sikh denominations. India, a land of 1.4 billion people, equally remains the world's largest democracy. There are more eligible voters in India than the entire population of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and France combined!

Until the 1980s, India's economy was saddled with a low-growth, democratic socialist model. The long-ruling Congress Party, since its independence from Britain in 1947, held to a democratic political model but fell woefully short of social and economic progress for its people. India exported its talented population to Britain, Canada, and the US while not creating a middle class between the super-rich and horrifically poor people.

Politically, Congress held to a policy of international nonalignment, which, under leaders such as Indira Gandhi, really meant a decided tilt towards Moscow. This flawed model changed by the early 1990s, originally under Congress, where long cherished "self-reliance" and the storied "Hindu rate of growth" were supplanted by economic development and a cut in the stifling government bureaucracy and corruption.

Significantly, the fall of the Soviet Union, the political polestar and patron of much of progressive leftist India, meant the country needed new political moorings. Bipartisan consensus in the United States emerged that India, who long played the aloof nonaligned game, stood at an inflection point. Starting with the Clinton and Bush administrations, until the present day, Washington's relations with New Delhi have become close and improving.

A decade ago, the BJP emerged to confront and defeat the once-mighty Congress Party political juggernaut. By 2014, the BJP won the legislative majority in the 542-seat parliament, the Lok Saba, with Mr Modi as prime minister; in 2019, the party won again. A party or coalition needs to win 272 parliamentary seats to form a government.

Currently, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition is expected to win 286 seats. The rival Congress India coalition, led by Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the old political dynasty, unexpectedly surged to win 234 seats.

In the past few decades, India's once sluggish economy has expanded through global commerce. For example, India's two-way trade with the United States a decade ago stood at $66 billion (2.4 trillion baht). Last year trade reached $124 billion but with a $44 billion deficit favouring India. Actually, the enterprise-oriented economy and an expanding middle class are a strong suit of Mr Modi's administration; India's GDP grew an impressive 6% last year. India now boasts the world's fifth-largest economy, just behind Germany and ahead of Britain.

Strategically, too, India has assumed new political clout as a viable counterweight to China, but it is not a formal military ally, as many in Washington presume. The New Delhi government has had longstanding border confrontations with China and, equally, with Pakistan concerning the disputed Kashmir region.

At the same time, India, as a member of the Quad, an informal strategic group focusing on the Indo-Pacific region, is happy to be in closer political harmony with the United States, as well as Australia and Japan, in thwarting Beijing's maritime aspirations in the Indian Ocean.

A third Modi administration offers India an economic vote of confidence but with a dented lustre.

John J Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defence issues. He is the author of 'Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China'.

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