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Simon Denyer on India’s most powerful man

Photo: Jason DeCrow/AP

Yesterday, Forbes published its annual list of the 72 most powerful individuals in the world. New on the list is Narendra Modi, who claimed a resounding victory in India’s elections on 16th May. Back in August, we spoke to Simon Denyer, a former India bureau chief for the Washington Post and author of ‘Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy’. Here’s what he told us about the new leader of the world’s biggest democracy

Was Modi’s victory expected?
A victory was clearly expected, but I don’t think anybody expected the scale of the landslide that he enjoyed and it was a remarkable election with a record turnout. It shattered some of the myths about Indian democracy: that they could no longer produce a strong mandate for one party or one individual, or that Indian politics had fragmented so much that coalition governments were here to stay.

What did his victory mean for the Indian people?
I think it was a victory for Indian democracy. People voted for governance. They voted against corruption and they voted for change. The Indian people have had a government which has been weak, corrupt and inept and they came out and said they did not want that. They voted for a man who promised to govern them better and to restore the economic health of the country. That, for me, was a sign that democracy is alive and well in India, and it was giving a strong message to politicians.

Was his victory a case of ‘It’s the economy, stupid’?
Economy was the basic word. People were absolutely fed up. There’s a huge number of young people coming into the job market every year in India and an incredible sense of aspiration that has been unleashed – a desire for education, for jobs, for achievement, for having better lives than your parents did.

Many people had been frustrated. The education was poor and the jobs weren’t there at the end of it. So I think it’s incredibly important to get the economy right in India. It’s an almost criminal waste of hundreds of millions of people’s aspirations and lives if they don’t get it right.

Will he be able to fulfil the expectations of the electorate?
Modi has set himself a very high bar in his campaign. He has portrayed himself quite deliberately as the man on a white horse who will come and save India – the individual who can change the way that India’s government functions and change Indian society to some degree.

In his Independence Day speech he talked about giving everybody access to toilets, which is a massively important issue in India. He also addressed the rape issue and said that instead of always asking girls where they are, people need to ask boys where they are. That to me was a very important thing that needed to be said strongly by a powerful political leader.

Modi is not known to be a team player and he arguably hasn’t got a particularly strong team around him, so I think it’s going to be hard for him to live up to all of the expectations that have been set. But he’s a very determined man and he has correctly identified some of the things that need to be done to get the Indian economy and Indian society functioning better. So from the point of view of the economy, governance and corruption, I am relatively optimistic that he is going to improve things, certainly from what went before in the last decade.

Commentators have described Modi as a polarising figure. Do you have any concerns about that?
Modi thrived on polarisation while he was chief minister of Gujarat. He thrived on his reputation as a defender of the Hindu majority and somebody who put Muslims in their place. I think he has made a real effort as prime minister to cast himself as leader of the entire Indian nation and be a different prime minister than he was a chief minister.

I do still have some concerns that his rise emboldens the extremists on both sides: the Hindu nationalists, who form part of the broader ideological alliance that the BJP is a political wing of, as well as Muslim extremists or terrorist groups who might challenge him by recruiting more people and committing more attacks on Indian soil.

He needs to continue to signal that he stands for the entire nation and not allow the right-wing of his party to control the societal agenda for him. That is not something he did well in Gujarat. I think it is something he has to do a lot better at as the prime minister of this incredibly diverse nation.

What will his election mean for press freedom in India?
There wasn’t a culture of dissent in Gujarat. Modi has in the past appeared to bully people who dare speak out against him. His supporters, at least on social media, have a great tendency to bully people who speak out against him. I don’t know the pressures that are being put on the Indian press to toe the line at the moment but there certainly are some, that is obvious from what you can see. On the other hand, I think that in the long run there is enough vibrancy in the Indian media to prevent it from completely kowtowing to the Modi line.

There is pressure and it’s something we’ve got to watch quite closely. He is very powerful now because he has just won this incredible election victory, so his power to bully people and get people into line is probably at its greatest right now. But that may not be the case for ever.

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