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Voters Hope Modi Can Revive India's Economy


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. The votes in India's election have been counted, making Narendra Modi the prime minister of the world's largest democracy. Modi won in a landslide, and many in India have high expectations for their new leader. They hope he will turn around the country's stalled economy to put India back on a path toward economic growth. But there are fears as well. Some see Modi as a divisive figure after anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 left more than 1,000 people dead. Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He's been following the election closely. He joins us from Delhi. Good to have you with us.

SADANAND DHUME: Good to be on your show.

NEARY: Now as big as this election victory was for Modi, he's still seen as a divisive figure by some within India. Why?

DHUME: Well, that's the paradox of Mr. Modi in some ways. He is the most popular politician in India without a question. But he is also the most polarizing figure in India because of the riots of 2002 to which you alluded. It's a minority of people who view him as a divisive figure, a vocal minority, and a minority that ought to be taken seriously. But nonetheless, these are not equal parts of the population. For most Indians, he's a rather beloved figure.

NEARY: But why - what is it that they expect him to do? What is it that they think he can do that - why he has the magic power to make this work?

DHUME: You know, there are a few things. On the one hand, India's economy, which was clocking double-digit growth rates until a few years ago, is now growing at less than 5 percent. And this has really disappointed people who were used to the economy growing faster, more jobs coming online and so on. The second thing is that the incumbent government has been hit by a series of staggering corruption scandals. And Mr. Modi is seen as personally clean. And finally, the third thing is his biography. His main rival, Rahul Gandhi, is from the storied Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, whereas Mr. Modi started his life selling tea at a railway stall. And it's very hard to exaggerate how powerful that story is in a country like India, which, despite dramatic progress, remains a very stratified society.

NEARY: You know, that small minority that you mentioned before who are a little worried, who are those people? Describe who those people are for us.

DHUME: Well, it's essentially two groups of people. I'd say it's the liberal intellectuals who have concerns that Mr. Modi may not exactly be a great champion of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, liberal values more broadly, and the Muslim minority.

NEARY: Well, these kind of concerns about Modi's past involvement in nationalists and anti-Muslim politics extend beyond the borders to Pakistan, don't they? I mean, how will this affect relations with Pakistan?

DHUME: It certainly will. And I think in Pakistan you essentially have two things going on. Among many of the Pakistani elite in the government, they figure that they can do business with him. But among Pakistan's population, he is viewed largely through the prism of the 2002 riots. And so what that leads to is just a kind of tension in the subcontinent of the sort that we haven't seen in a while.

NEARY: Those 2002 riots also have affected U.S. relations with Mr. Modi. The U.S. has been very cool towards him until just before this victory. What will the win mean for U.S.-India relations?

DHUME: Well, this is tricky. If you had asked the U.S. administration who is the one candidate they would not have liked to see win this election say six months ago, it would have been Narendra Modi. But I think over time, people have come to terms with the fact that he's a highly popular leader.

The fact that the Supreme Court investigation found no prosecutable evidence against him has certainly helped his case. But my own hunch is that both sides are going to be pragmatic. Mr. Modi is likely going to work to revive the economy. And I think the U.S. is going to use that to build a bridge. But this is not going to be a relationship that, at least in the beginning, starts out with any great natural warmth or affinity.

NEARY: Sadanand Dhume is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He joined us from Delhi. Thanks so much for being with us.

DHUME: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.