Narendra Modi win a mandate for good governance

Narendra Modi being garlanded by supporters at a public meeting in the western city of Ahmedabad May 20, 2014. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption It will not be easy for Narendra Modi to live up to the expectations he has raised

Narendra Modi's victory in India's general election has proved that Indian democracy can deliver a mandate for good governance, writes author and journalist Simon Denyer.

Indian democracy routinely gets a bad press around the world, and for some understandable reasons.

Politicians, the argument goes, exist at the centre of a vast network of corruption and patronage; populism has replaced cogent policy-making; while parliament barely functions, constantly disrupted by noisy and undignified protests.

For the past decade, stifling dynastic politics within the Congress party was pitted against a Hindu nationalist opposition that seemed to lack conviction or consistency.

With both brands struggling to construct a convincing national narrative, regional and caste-based parties filled the gap.

Politics had fragmented, and an era of weak and directionless rule by coalition governments seemed to have dawned.

Voters saw only their narrow interests, famously casting their vote only to vote for their caste.

The entrepreneurial class just wanted government to leave them alone, and barely bothered to vote.

In China, many people looked at Indian democracy as the greatest advertisement for decisive, authoritarian rule.

Record turnout

The 2014 elections, however, exploded the myth that democracy in India was in terminal decline.

While turnout has been on a long-term decline for decades in established Western democracies, turnout in India reached an all-time record of 66.5%, buoyed by record numbers of first-time voters, by greater participation by women, and even by new-found enthusiasm among the nation's fast-growing middle-class.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The general election saw a record voter turnout and a large number of women participated in the polls

Momentum for change had been building for years.

Twenty-four-hour news television might have turned politics into a game of sensationalism and sound-bites, but it had helped expose corruption and demand accountability.

The Right to Information Act had empowered the poor to ask questions of India's vast, creaking bureaucracy.

Young and old alike had taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to protest against corruption and the treatment of women.

Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party surfed that wave and exploited that desire for change brilliantly.

It ran a savvy and sophisticated campaign, carefully targeting seats where it had a chance of winning and cleverly turning a 31% vote share into an outright majority in India's lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha.

Regional parties fared less well; even while Congress slumped, the vote share commanded by the two main parties topped 50%, up from 47% in 2009.

National narrative

But more importantly, the election was not a compendium of local, caste-driven contests, it contained an important national narrative: throwing out a government widely seen as both corrupt and inept, and voting in a man who promised clean, decisive leadership, good governance and development.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Modi has the tough job of pulling millions out of poverty

Mr Modi backed away from the politics of handout and subsidies, and pledged instead to give Indians of all stripes, rich and poor, urban and rural, the chance to realise their aspirations: for education, for jobs, and for even more fundamental building blocks to a better life, electricity and clean, running water.

In his campaign, Mr Modi created a powerful brand, and issued an ambitious promise.

He cast himself as a Messianic figure, the knight on a white horse come to rescue the nation; his home state of Gujarat was portrayed as the Promised Land, where everyone could realise the Indian Dream.

It will not be easy for Mr Modi to live up to the expectations he has raised, but his mandate is clear.

Indian electors have delivered a clear message to their politicians: that they want governance instead of corruption, opportunity instead of charity.

India's democracy has done its job, and delivered that message loud and clear; now it is up to Mr Modi to do his job, and deliver on what he has promised.

Simon Denyer is author of Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India's Unruly Democracy. He spent most of the last decade working as a journalist in India and is currently China Bureau Chief for The Washington Post