Talking Democracy In India

The Good and the Bad of Modi's Reelection

Modi supporters in Gujarat. (Amit Dave / Courtesy Reuters)

When the controversial Indian politician Narendra Modi sailed to reelected victory last month in regional elections in Gujarat, it was difficult to find anyone who didn't have the urge to cry. Some shed tears of joy and others of despair, but any reaction in between was rare. Modi, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is at once celebrated for his dedication to good governance and economic growth and reviled for his autocratic style of governing and alleged role in the brutal violence waged against his state's minority Muslim community in 2002. Given the passionate feelings that surround him, Modi's emergence on the national political scene as India's attention turns to countrywide elections in 2014 could open up a rare substantive debate about the role of government in the world's largest democracy.

After the results of Gujarat's election were announced, Modi delivered a fiery acceptance speech in Hindi (as opposed to Gujarati, his native tongue). It was a tell-tale sign that he is setting his sights on national politics. Modi is widely expected to try and stand as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in upcoming parliamentary elections. The role is likely his for the taking: The BJP has long languished on the opposition benches in New Delhi, its leadership is seen as weak and incoherent, and the party rank and file are demanding a campaign built around competent, efficient governance. Even those within the party and among its coalition partners who find the idea of a Prime Minister Modi abhorrent recognize that there are few plausible alternatives.

Although Modi's entry into national politics could further polarize India, it also carries a silver lining -- one even his detractors should acknowledge. For perhaps the first time in recent memory, an Indian election campaign promises to focus on substantive issues of development and democracy instead of the usual fare of caste politics and clientelism.

This fall, during the run-up to the state election, Modi

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