Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has won a commanding victory in India’s national election, giving the controversial Hindu nationalist prime minister a firm mandate for a second five-year term. Votes for the election, held over seven phases beginning on April 11, are still being counted, but the BJP appears to have won around 300 seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament, up from 282 seats won in the election five years ago and well over the 272 needed for an absolute majority. He will be the first Indian prime minister to lead his party to back-to-back victories in almost half a century. It’s a humiliating defeat for the opposition Congress party, which ruled India for most of its post-Independence history, and for its leader, Rahul Gandhi, scion of the country’s most prominent political family, who was defeated in his own constituency in Uttar Pradesh.
The largest democratic election ever held, with 900 million eligible voters and record turnout, the contest was, if nothing else, a stunning achievement of logistics. Indian law requires no voter to be more than 2 kilometers from their polling station, meaning that about 1 million polling stations were needed, including one delivered by helicopter to an altitude of 15,000 feet in the Himalayas.
Modi had been expected to win, but the magnitude of his victory is stunning. All the more so because five years of BJP rule hasn’t exactly delivered on the party’s economic promises. Unemployment is at a 20-year high, initiatives to tackle red tape and corruption have faltered, and a surprise move to eliminate India’s largest currency bills caused economic chaos that fell most heavily on India’s poorest. The BJP suffered setbacks in municipal elections last December, suggesting the party might be vulnerable.
But the BJP doubled down on its Hindu nationalist roots, casting Congress as soft on terrorism and beholden to Muslims, who make up 14 percent of the country’s population. Recent military tensions with Pakistan may also have boosted Modi’s credentials on national security. As one Kolkata voter told the BBC, “It is all right if there’s little development, but Modi is keeping the nation secure and keeping India’s head high.” But at times the party’s rhetoric crossed the line into outright anti-Muslim bigotry and stoked sectarian violence in some places. Among last night’s BJP winners, in the city of Bhopal, is a controversial Hindu ascetic accused of several bombings targeting Muslims. Human rights groups have accused Modi’s government of tacitly encouraging an alarming spike in communal violence and hate crimes.
This isn’t exactly new for the BJP. Modi himself was barred from entering the United States until 2014 because of his alleged role in a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom while he was chief minister of Gujarat. (The ban was quietly lifted by the Obama administration in 2014 when it became clear Modi would become prime minister.) But many skeptics, both inside India and internationally, were willing to give Modi the benefit of the doubt, due to his credentials and self-presentation as an economic modernizer.
That’s a harder case to make today. Following his win, Modi wrote on Twitter, “Together we will build a strong and inclusive India,” but it seems as if his path to maintaining power relies on division.