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A desire for change

It was the victory parade to end all victory parades.

A victorious Narendra  Modi during a victory parade in New DelhiPhotograph:  Reuters
A victorious Narendra Modi during a victory parade in New DelhiPhotograph: Reuters

Lining the route from the airport to the headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in downtown New Delhi yesterday, thousands of supporters gave a hero's welcome to their leader Narendra Modi after his stunning victory which saw his party sweep into power in India's recent general election.

It was also a key moment in the ­country's recent history.

After years of being the ruling elite, the Congress Party was brushed aside to make way for the nationalist BJP in one of the most one-sided elections of recent times. Led by Modi, who will become the new prime minister, the BJP had by Friday night won 339 parliamentary seats; enough to form a majority government without the need to broker a coalition deal with another of the opposition parties.

The BJP triumph represents the largest mandate since 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi was elected on a wave of emotion ­following his mother's assassination and carried all before him to create an administration dominated by the Congress Party.

Now, 30 years later, that same party has been roundly defeated and the Gandhi dynasty, the dominant family in post-independence India, has received a bloody nose.

The celebrations began as the results were still being counted and Modi took advantage of the Congress Party's ­concession of defeat on Friday evening to address a wildly cheering crowd in the city of Vadodara in his home state of Gujarat.

"Brothers and sisters, you have faith in me, and I have faith in you," he told them amid interruptions as his name was loudly chanted.

"We have the capacity to fulfil the common man's aspirations."

His clarion call was justified as rarely before has a party been elected on such a wave of hope and anticipation. And therein lies the major problem facing Modi and his party. After a long period of disillusionment with national politics, it is going to be difficult to manage those expectations.

So great is the desire for change that Modi is going to be hard pushed to meet the calls for economic growth, reform of the country's infrastructure and job creation for young people, all of which were promised during the BJP's election campaign.

Keeping those promises will not be easy, for all that Modi has done well at regional level. During his time as chief minister in Gujarat - he has served three terms since first being elected in 2001 - the semi-arid state has been transformed out of all recognition.

Super highways have replaced pot-holed tracks and its ports have been modernised to become India's biggest and most profitable gateways. But doing the same thing nationally is another matter. Not only has he no experience of national politics; he will also have a fight on his hands to ­encourage the different state administrations across India to fall in line with his plans. "He has become a purveyor of dreams," says Sanjay Gupta, who runs a chain of hotels and has profited from Modi's free market reforms. "It's hard to see how he can meet all the pent-up aspirations without re-engineering the system."

As evidence, Gupta points to the fact that, to keep itself on an even economic keel, India has to create 10 million jobs a year, four times the pace of the last five years if it wants to absorb young people into the workforce.

Religion also comes into it. Given the fact that Modi has form as a Hindu nationalist and is suspected of being anti-Islam, largely as a result of a brutal crackdown on the Muslim community in Gujarat in 2002, there are fears that jobs could be reserved for Hindus and that a period of divisiveness beckons.

For India's population of 175 million Muslims (one in seven) these are not idle concerns but very real fears. Others are worried that he could oversee the creation of a centralist government which will brook no dissent and crack down on protest.

It is fair to say that the BJP victory owed much to the hopeless performance of the Congress-controlled government. Throughout its period in office, prime minister Manmohan Singh was barely noticeable on the national stage and it meant little to the electorate that he was a first-class economist. All too often he was eclipsed by the Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi who seemed to put her energies into grooming her son Rahul for power.

In the event, though, he proved to be incapable of imposing himself on the election debate and, in the final stages, he gave way to his more experienced sister, Priyanka.

Against a background of official ­corruption, growing inflation and widespread dismay at a spike in lawlessness, including a brutal gang rape in Delhi in 2012, Singh's government lacked c­redibility and was soon exposed as being unable to counter the BJP's noisy campaign.

After a decade in power the Congress administration had run out of steam and enjoyed little support among an electorate which had grown by more than 100 million votes, thanks to changes in the electoral system.

Significantly, many of these were younger voters in their twenties who were unmoved by Modi's alleged involvement in the rioting in Gujarat but are deeply concerned by the country's economic instability and the lack of firm governmental control.

Although Modi's election will not be welcomed by every Indian, it has won approval on the international stage. Ten years ago, following the pogrom in Gujarat, he became a pariah and was denied entry to the US and the UK. But yesterday, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron were among the first to congratulate him and issue invitations to visit Washington and London. Modi even received congratulations from Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif who commended the BJP's "impressive victory" in the election.

Welcome though this support will be to a man who has always made much of his humble roots and has shunned the trappings of power, the real work will begin once Modi takes up office as prime minister. For the last four years, India has been in the grip of an inflationary spiral, the worst in 20 years, and the economy is in urgent need of attention.

More than any other factor this is what turned the middle classes against the Congress Party and, being a shrewd ­tactician, Modi knows only too well that the cheering crowds will turn against him unless he comes up with some answers. He will also have to nail once and for all the suspicion that he is antagonistic towards Islam and will give preferment to Hindus. As he addressed his supporters ­yesterday, Modi seemed to understand the significance of the moment, telling them that he was but a servant to their wishes and that he would rule for all Indians, whatever their backgrounds.

"The real government will come from Kashmir on top to Kanyakumari [on India's southern tip] - that is a real government," he said.

"The age of divisive politics has ended - from today onwards the politics of uniting people will begin."

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