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World India’s Narendra Modi captures historic election victory

Official data from the Election Commission showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party ahead in 300 of the 542 seats being contested.

ANUSHREE FADNAVIS/Reuters

He called himself India’s watchman, even as minorities said they felt unsafe under his gaze. He boasted of his humble origins while doing favours for billionaires. He spoke the language of business, yet could not deliver enough jobs to Indians aspiring to a better life.

Despite those contradictions, Narendra Modi, India’s incumbent prime minister, led his party to a stunning election victory on Thursday, eviscerating the opposition and giving Hindu nationalists the strongest hand they have ever held in modern Indian history.

His mix of brawny Hindu nationalism, populist humility and grand gestures for the poor – such as building tens of millions of new toilets – helped him become the first prime minister in nearly 50 years to win a majority in successive parliamentary elections.

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“This is the victory of the mother who was longing for a toilet,” Mr. Modi said in a speech to supporters on Thursday night. “This victory is of the farmers who sweat to fill the stomachs of others.”

Many Indians see Mr. Modi, 68, as a nationalist icon. He stood up to China, nearly went to war with Pakistan and brought India closer to the United States. During the campaign, he described himself as the chowkidar – the watchman. And many Indians felt he was the best leader to raise India’s standing in the world.

His success mirrors the rise of right-leaning populist figures around the world. But detractors say his commitment to giving more power to the country’s Hindu majority has struck fear in the Muslim minority and is pulling the country’s delicate social fabric apart.

Under him, mob lynchings have shot up, Muslim representation in parliament has dropped to its lowest level in decades, and right-wing Hindus have felt emboldened to push an extreme agenda, including lionizing the man who fatally shot the independence hero Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Yet in Indian politics today, no other figure can approach Mr. Modi’s aura. Analysts call him “larger than life” and “a cinematic character.”

His Bharatiya Janata Party, by far India’s richest and most aggressive, has built a personality cult around him, and in speeches he refers to himself in the third person.

“Are you happy that Modi kills by entering homes?” he thundered at a recent rally, recalling the air strike he ordered on Pakistan in February. “Doesn’t your chest puff out with pride?”

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The crowd cheered.

“Modi has embedded himself in every Indian’s consciousness,” said Arati Jerath, a prominent newspaper columnist.

In contrast, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Indian National Congress party and the scion of a long political dynasty, is widely perceived as inexperienced and weak. In acknowledging his defeat, Gandhi said that the country was engaged in a long ideological battle, and “love never loses.”

The election turnout was one for the history books – the largest democratic exercise ever. From April 11 to May 19, more than 600 million Indians cast ballots at a million polling stations from high in the Himalayas to the tropical islands in the Andaman Sea.

Intense feelings about Mr. Modi, for or against, helped drive turnout to 67 per cent, the highest ever.

Even some voters who were worried about the economy or did not like the way Mr. Modi had stirred communal divisions said they still saw him as the best leader for India now.

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“Farmers are in trouble,” said Vinay Tyagi, a wheat and sugar cane farmer in the swing state of Uttar Pradesh. “But we still voted for the BJP because there was no alternative for us. The other candidates weren’t good.”

To keep his job, Mr. Modi campaigned relentlessly, holding 142 rallies and covering 65,000 miles. On the night before voting ended, he meditated in a Himalayan cave in the same area where, more than 50 years earlier, he had wandered as a young man searching for purpose.

Mr. Modi will be the first two-time prime minister ever to come from a lower caste. He grew up in a small town north of Ahmadabad, in the state of Gujarat. This has been a powerful part of his narrative: He calls himself a lowly chaiwalla, a tea-seller, a clear jab at India’s elite.

At age 8, he became part of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing Hindu group that would play a huge role in his life. Its members are the foot soldiers of the Hindu nationalist movement, and some critics have accused it of embracing fascism – in the 1930s, the group’s members were inspired by Mussolini’s Italy.

In school, Mr. Modi was known as an average student, but he demonstrated a talent for theatre and debating.

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When he was around 18, he went on his Himalayan sojourn, contemplating a life as an ascetic priest. In a recent interview, he said that he had bathed in freezing rivers, hung around holy men and learned to “align himself with the rhythm of the universe.”

He also deserted the young woman whom his parents had arranged for him to marry. Even now it is unclear whether Mr. Modi ever lived with her.

In his twenties and thirties, he was a preacher for the RSS, and then a worker for the BJP in Gujarat, where he oversaw the printing of banned pamphlets pushing Hindutva, the belief in the primacy of the Hindu religion and way of life. Analysts say he remains an “ultranationalist” at his core.

“He is very divisive,” said Ms. Jerath, the newspaper columnist. “He believes in the politics of polarization: us against them, Hindus against Muslims, rich against poor, poor against rich.”

A pivotal event came in February, 2002, when Gujarat exploded in religious riots. Mr. Modi, then chief minister of the state, was blamed for not stopping the bloodshed, which left more than 1,000 people dead, most of them Muslim.

From then on, Mr. Modi would be known among the Hindu right as a hero. Many Muslims considered him a killer.

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But in the next few years, Mr. Modi sought to cultivate a different reputation. He became a friend of free enterprise and helped attract thousands of manufacturing jobs to Gujarat.

Business people and middle-class voters began to rally around him, seeing him as someone who could get results. At the same time, the dynastic Congress party, which led India for most of its history since independence from Britain, was collapsing, plagued by scandals and the absence of an inspiring leader.

In 2014, the first time Mr. Modi ran for prime minister, he emphasized infrastructure, development and rooting out corruption. His BJP won a landslide, and Congress suffered its biggest defeat – winning only 44 seats out of 543, the party’s worst showing in its 100-year-plus history.

Once in office, Mr. Modi swiftly consolidated power, making big decisions within a small circle of advisers.

He quickly announced several high-profile social programs, including the building of 100 million new toilets, a goal his government has nearly reached. Many voters in this election cited the toilets – and the dignity they brought – as one reason for giving him their vote.

But there were also troubling signs. Hindu nationalists, encouraged by the election of one of their own to the country’s highest office, began persecuting and even killing Muslims and low-caste Hindus.

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Mr. Modi and his party appointed Hindu nationalists to key posts at universities and government agencies. They changed place names from Muslim to Hindu and rewrote children’s history books, purging entire sections on Muslim rulers.

In November, 2016, Mr. Modi suddenly invalidated most of the nation’s currency in the name of fighting corruption. The move made it nearly impossible to use cash in a country that relied on it for nearly everything.

Seven months later, the government replaced a complex set of state taxes with a single national goods and services tax. While most economists say it was a sensible reform, the new system was so complicated that it caused chaos at millions of small businesses.

The twin blows battered the economy and paralyzed job growth in a country where 5 million young people enter the work force every year. He was also criticized for signing a multibillion-dollar fighter jet deal with France that sent part of the work to an Indian billionaire with no experience.

Still, supporters say that Mr. Modi cut bureaucracy for businesses, invested in major infrastructure like roads and tried to tackle some of India’s biggest problems, such as a lack of health care for the poor.

As the campaign began, many analysts predicted that Mr. Modi would lose support over India’s economic challenges.

Everything changed on Feb. 14, when a suicide bomber blew up a bus of paramilitary forces in Pulwama in the state of Kashmir, which both India and Pakistan claim. Jingoism surged, and so did Mr. Modi’s approval ratings. He campaigned hard on national security, and voters seemed to respond.

“The scale of the win is remarkable,” said Menaka Guruswamy, a senior lawyer in India’s Supreme Court and lecturer at Columbia Law School.

But she added: “I don’t know of a word that begins to capture how deeply divided we are at this point.”

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