BJP leader Narendra Modi gestures during his speech at a rally by the leader on May 8 in Rohaniya, near Varanasi India.
Results close for Indian election
01:48 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

India's Prime Minister-in-waiting Narendra Modi is a polarizing figure

Critics say the pro-business Hindu nationalist is a threat to secular, liberal traditions

He led the state of Gujarat through a period of strong economic growth

But his relationship with the country's huge Muslim minority has come under scrutiny

CNN  — 

What will Narendra Modi’s India look like?

The country’s prime minister-in-waiting – a staunch Hindu nationalist and the Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat since 2001 – is a deeply polarizing figure and an unproven commodity on the international stage.

Analysts predict his arrival in the country’s top office will bring a marked change in direction for the world’s most populous democracy, a nation whose modern character has been defined by the inclusive, secular and liberal approach of the Congress Party, which has governed for most of the post-independence era.

The only question, they say, is how great a departure Modi’s premiership will be from what has come before.

“There will be a big change,” analyst and journalist Arati Jerath told CNN ahead of his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (Indian People’s Party) crushing victory at the polls.

The BJP finished with 282 of 543 parliamentary seats, giving it a clear majority – something no other Indian political party has achieved in three decades.

“The desire for change very clearly (is there)… I think people are looking for another kind of government,” said Jerath.

“His vision for India is not the kind of inclusive, secularist vision that we have been used to – it is a much more right-wing, pro-Hindu vision,” she said.

“I … see an increase in social tension with groups that are not included in his vision.”


The 63-year-old former tea seller’s immense popularity – a Pew survey ahead of the elections found nearly 80% of respondents held a positive view of him – stems in large part from his reputation as a tough, “can-do” administrator, the man with the medicine to kickstart India’s stuttering economy.

“Modi is a good administrator,” said Ramesh Menon, author of an unauthorized biography of the politician. “He is very strict, gets things done. There is a fear element.”

His popularity comes in spite of a lack of strong personal charisma. Seen as a hardworking and conservative technocrat, Modi had failed to establish an “emotional connect” with voters during campaigning, said Jerath.

Instead, his claim to the nation’s top office has largely rested on his track record since 2001 in charge of Gujarat, a state of some 60 million people whose China-like rates of growth in recent years have been eyed enviously by the rest of the country.

‘The Gujarat model’

The so-called “Gujarat model” of development means a focus on infrastructure, urbanization and eradicating red tape – seen as a much-needed tonic for a country ranked 179th in the world by the World Bank in terms of ease of starting a business.

A sharp contrast to the traditional approach of the outgoing Congress Party – which has focused on promoting inclusive growth involving a raft of welfare schemes – it’s proven highly attractive to business. India stocks have risen almost 18% this year at the prospect of a Modi-led government.

India’s largest conglomerate, the Tata Group, relocated a car plant into the state four years ago, a move the company’s former chairman Ratan Tata credits in part to Modi’s involvement.

“In effect, (Modi) delivered in three days what other states which were also trying to woo us could only offer their best endeavors to do,” he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “No side deals, no quid pro quos.”

The promise of economic development is just as enticing to the public, and resonates particularly with the increasingly strident aspirations of the 100 million young voters who were eligible to cast their ballots for the first time in 2014, said Dilip Dutta, director of the South Asian Studies Group at the University of Sydney.

“These young voters are exposed through electronic media to the whole world, and have a dream of moving forward – not lagging behind as their fathers and grandfathers have for decades.”

Greater inequality?

But not everyone is convinced about Modi’s economic prescription.

Mohan Guruswamy, a political analyst at Delhi’s Center for Policy Alternatives, told CNN that Modi’s record in Gujarat has been overhyped.

“There is no ‘Gujarat model,’ and there are other states with faster economic growth,” he said during an interview in the build-up to the election.

Moreover, many feel that economic development in the state has been unequally distributed, and not matched with corresponding gains in human development.

“It really is a model that favors people who already have access to things like education and business possibilities,” said Jerath. “He offers very little to the poor, to the weaker section and I think that this is a major weakness.”

While she believed Modi’s leadership would see an increase in foreign and domestic investment, his corporate agenda would also likely lead to conflict with India’s vocal civil society groups.

“I see a rise in social tension because people have become much more conscious and they don’t want to to give up their land so easily just because Modi wants to clear the way forward for business,” she said.

“There will be tension over forest land, there will be tension over agricultural land… It will be a very interesting thing to see how he manages the challenges.”

Too autocratic?

Modi’s hard-nosed, occasionally abrasive leadership style will also present a marked departure for a country accustomed to a more consensus-driven approach, analysts believe.

“I see Modi as an extraordinarily ambitious man, quite ruthless in the pursuit of his ambition,” said Jerath.

Guruswamy, who knows Modi personally, likens his vision of a “right-wing, authoritarian corporate state” as closer to the model in China, and questions whether his divisive, autocratic tendencies will translate well in a country as boisterously democratic as India.

“It’s not a place where you can press buttons – you have to work with people,” he said. “The prime minister of India has to be the supreme conciliator, reconciling the aspirations and demands of thousands of groups. It’s not like China where you can turn off Weibo one day – you can’t be autocratic or they’ll cut you out.”

Journalist and blogger Sunny Hundal also sees Modi as a challenge to the country’s established liberal, secular order, writing in a CNN opinion piece that the signs were there that his government would “be much less tolerant of criticism, hostile to