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Congress party routed but new Indian PM faces huge challenge

Flower power: Narendra Modi receives a  garland from supporters after his landslide victory.
The estimates vary, but over the past decade politicians from India’s governing Congress party have taken bribes worth between $4.3 billion and $13 billion.

Such unrestrained venality was not the only thing that left a bad taste in the mouths of voters.

Sagging economic growth, rising unemployment, runaway inflation and a flagging currency gave voters the feeling India was not just going nowhere, but backwards.

Through 10 years of Congress rule, promised reforms that voters had expected would propel India to world power status failed to materialise.

Roads were left unbuilt, electricity remains out of reach for the majority as does the hope of a decent education.

Presiding over this inglorious record of underachievement were Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, the listless and weary remnants of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, who have made no effort to hide their disdain for the responsibility of government but at the same time have relished its perks.

No wonder then that a record number of Indians turned out at the polls to boot them from government with such a vengeance that the party that won independence for India may never recover.

In a lower house of 543 seats, the Congress party will have just 44. In the words of India’s most prominent news anchor Arnab Goswami, the Congress has not just been decimated, it has been destroyed.

India’s new Prime Minister will be 63-year-old Narendra Modi, who since 2002 has been the chief minister of the north-western state of Gujarat, an industrial powerhouse that has become the envy of India.

It was the lure of Mr Modi’s neo-liberal Gujarat model that in the end proved decisively persuasive for voters.

In the new parliament, Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindi for Indian People’s Party, will have a previously unimagined 282 seats and become the first party to govern in its own right in 30 years.

Together with its coalition partners, known collectively as the National Democratic Alliance, the new BJP government will occupy 334 seats, giving Mr Modi a free hand to act on his promises.

High on Mr Modi’s list are promises to reform India’s sluggish bureaucracy that has in recent years held up more than $100 billion worth of foreign investment, and get on with the task of building the infrastructure that India so desperately needs.

Underscoring the magnitude of the task, Mr Modi’s government will need to create 10 million jobs every year just to keep pace with people entering the job market.

While the BJP is rightly celebrating its electoral victory, it’s not all attributable to the party’s pro-business, anti-corruption agenda.

Mr Modi - a lifelong member of the ultra-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an ostensibly apolitical volunteer organisation that is nevertheless intimately entwined with the BJP - adroitly fanned the flames of sectarianism to his advantage.

Especially worrying is that Mr Modi has never fully shaken off charges that he allowed or even aided a 2002 Hindu pogrom that resulted in the deaths of more than 1000 Muslims.

Whether Mr Modi will continue the kind of pragmatic leadership that became the hallmark of his years as chief minister in Gujarat, or will use his massive parliamentary majority to incite religious differences, remains to be seen.

An important test will be whether Mr Modi can successfully resist calls that are sure to come early in his tenure to build a temple to the Hindu god Lord Ram on land that is the site of a mosque.

Jason Koutsoukis, New Delhi

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