India will suffer if the new Prime Minister fails to mix a programme of economic reform with religious tolerance

It is the economic reformist in Mr Modi that drew support from across the Indian population, especially among the dissatisfied young

 

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Celebrations are due – and not just in India – after the smooth completion of a record-breaking election. More than 500 million Indian citizens cast a ballot. In itself, this is a thrilling endorsement of democracy – not only the highest turnout in India’s history, but also the largest vote ever undertaken in the world. Beside the staggering numbers involved, the peaceful spirit of events made an impression: violence was minimal, minorities freely included and the logistics handled with aplomb.

The result, however, deserves more cautious greeting. It is a landslide for Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). To this day, the first thing many think of when they hear the Prime Minister’s name is the role he played in a gruesome bout of communal violence more than a decade ago.

Mr Modi – who joined an extremist Hindu organisation as a young man – has yet to allay suspicions that, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he turned a blind eye to the 2002 pogrom that left 1,000 Muslims dead. Despite a Muslim population in India of around 15 per cent, the BJP leader offered no significant apology during his campaign: the closest the 63-year-old got was comparing his regret for the loss of Muslim life to that felt when a puppy is run over by a car.

Yet it is the economic reformist in Mr Modi that drew support from across the Indian population, especially among the dissatisfied young. With about 40 per cent of the vote, the BJP leader has earned a sizeable mandate to deliver on his agenda. That is, primarily, to drag the Indian economy, in which annual GDP growth has fallen below five per cent, out of the doldrums. (Stock markets rallied in anticipation of a BJP victory.) The corruption that trammels India is also a target for Mr Modi, who played up his roots as a tea-seller’s son, in contrast to the venal elites his rival in the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, travelled among.

Even for a dynamo like Mr Modi, the challenges are stiff. In the campaign, he employed holograms so that he could speak in 100 election meetings at once; it would help if he could call on them again to govern. India’s federal structure, as well as its sluggish bureaucracy, resists top-down change. Meanwhile, a third of the world’s poorest people live in the country, and – much as a rising economic tide may lift all boats – Mr Modi’s liberation of business in Gujarat did not shift poverty rates much. Environmentalists may be pleased, however: Mr Modi plastered his state with solar panels, and wants to repeat the trick across India.

Foreign policy holds obvious dangers, not least the threat from Pakistan – an unstable, Muslim and nuclear-armed neighbour. Yet early signs bode surprisingly well; following overtures from Mr Modi, senior Pakistani diplomats believe the BJP leader may be the man to revive peace talks that stalled after the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai.

If Mr Modi is to win both national and international trust, however, he must do a great deal more to dispel fears in the Muslim community. His party handed secularist Congress its biggest electoral defeat since India gained independence in 1947. But, in victory, Mr Modi should adopt some of the country’s exemplary traditions of religious freedom. He promised “toilets not temples” if he took power. That is good. But first he ought to calm his critics: and a visit to a mosque would be the right place to start.

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