Friday, April 20, 2018

Modi promises a 'shining India' in victory speech

NEW DELHI — India's opposition party swept to victory in the country's national election Friday, setting the stage for Hindu nationalist and economic reformer Narendra Modi to become the next prime minister.

Modi, 63, chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, ran an efficient monthslong campaign, spreading his message of hope and revitalization at thousands of rallies across the country. Ultimately voters overwhelmingly chose his message of change, with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies garnering well over the 272 seats needed for a clear majority in Parliament.

The "Modi wave," as it was called, meant crushing defeat for the governing Congress Party and its 43-year-old scion, Rahul Gandhi, its chief campaigner. Across the country, voters heading to the polls said they were unhappy with corruption scandals and ineffectual leadership after 10 years of Congress Party rule under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

U.S. officials sent congratulations as they tried to smooth over past differences with India and with Modi.

An ebullient Modi spoke at two victory rallies in his home state of Gujarat on Friday, with crowds interrupting his remarks with chants of "Modi, Modi, Modi!" He reveled in the mandate his party had achieved but pledged an inclusive government for a "shining India" that will make the 21st century "India's century."

Modi, the son of a tea seller from one of India's lower castes, grew visibly emotional when he spoke of the people of his home state, where he grew from a boy in a small village to the four-term chief minister.

"You people of Gujarat are my mother and father. You have raised me. While I serve Mother India, I will also worry about you," he said. "You are my energy, you are my inspiration, you are my strength."

Meanwhile in the capital, New Delhi, Modi's supporters celebrated in the streets, setting off fireworks, dancing and singing. But the Congress Party headquarters was almost deserted, with security officials and media outnumbering workers. The mood was somber.

Gandhi, alongside his mother, Sonia, the party's president, made brief remarks, accepting responsibility for the defeat of the party, which has dominated Indian politics for most of its 128 years.

The United States congratulated Modi without hesitation Friday, appearing to look beyond a past controversy: As Gujarat's chief minister, Modi failed to control riots when the state descended into religious violence more than a decade ago. That led the United States to deny Modi a visa in 2005.

But President Barack Obama called Modi on Friday, the White House said, and invited him to visit Washington at some point.

The Obama administration is eager to get off on the right foot with Modi and to put a deep rift with the Singh government to rest. Although relations have been patched over in the past few months, the scars are still fresh from a diplomatic row over the December arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York.

The Singh government was outraged over what it called egregious mistreatment of the diplomat, and it retaliated by removing some security measures at U.S. diplomatic facilities in India and eliminating perks for diplomats there.

News that business-friendly Modi and his party were headed for a rout sent the Sensex, the Indian stock market, soaring, and the rupee strengthened against the dollar.

India's business community hopes Modi will be able to fulfill his campaign promises to jump-start the economy, create jobs and restart stalled infrastructure projects, but he faces steep challenges. In recent years, the country's growth rate and job creation have dipped, inflation has skyrocketed, and investors stymied by the country's sluggish bureaucracy have either sat on their money or taken it elsewhere.

"He is coming in with fresh ideas," said Sidharth Birla, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. "It will go a long way in removing the negative perception about India that had built up in the past few years."

Modi won the hearts of the country's younger voters, a huge factor in a county where two-thirds of the population is under the age of 35.

"It is an important election because the trend in the counting shows that old ideas about caste, religion and region have not been relevant. By and large, it has been a vote for change, for development and for a decisive leader," said Dipankar Gupta, a political analyst and author. "The youth across India have voted for change, and Modi represented that change."

Modi went to great lengths to reach out to the country's first-time voters, whom Bharatiya Janata Party president Rajnath Singh acknowledged at the news conference Friday. "The country's youth felt the impatience for change," he said.

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