How Will Narendra Modi Change India?

In a historic election, Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist party ousted India's long-ruling Congress party. Scott Simon talks with NPR's Julie McCarthy about what this political shift means for India.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Prime Minister elect Narendra Modi has arrived in New Delhi after his BJP party overwhelmed the ruling congress party of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Mr. Modi walked through a sea of pink rose petals to meet his supporters.

His win will give India the first parliamentary majority there in 25 years. He's promised a series of reforms. But in a country divided by caste, religion and a growing divide between rich and poor, can the low-caste son of a tea stall owner representing a Hindu nationalist party be the great unifier? Julie McCarthy is in New Delhi. She's been on the campaign trail. Julie thanks so much for being with us.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What was the scene like as Mr. Modi arrived?

MCCARTHY: Well, I've never seen more rose petals in my life. There was a victorious parade. Once he landed, he got out of his car. He greeted people. But that said, there was this less rapturous welcome than I would have imagined at the BJP headquarters, where the media seemed to have outnumbered everybody. It really was rather subdued.

He made a brief appearance in an enormous media tent, there - where he was garlanded with an enormous necklace of marigolds. And on-hand were just senior party leaders, but it was very much Modi's show, Scott. That sense that Modi is the heartbeat of the party is only reinforced by the portraits and the posters of only him. It's very Modi-centric and his manner also creates that aura of a man in charge. He was the picture of calm amid the crowd.

SIMON: There is something utterly magisterial in the fact that, you know, this democracy of a billion people changes the guard peacefully. What's on the agenda the next few days?

MCCARTHY: Absolutely. Yeah, that's so true. Today, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tendered his resignation and the president will then turn around and ask him to stay on a few days, so that he can be a - so that there's a caretaker prime minister.

Then on Tuesday we fully expected that Narendra Modi will be sworn into office by the president and become the first prime minister to be born after independence, Scott. So it's one of those markers that tells of a changing of a guard, a changing of a political order here.

SIMON: And does that signify that he has a different set of goals - and obviously to get the kind of majority that he does - what's he represent in the hopes of many Indians right now?

MCCARTHY: Yeah. Well, he's tapped into aspirational India, which is a new phenomenon in the last 10 years. The Times of India said today that he has recast the Indian dream, in which the people are middle-class rather than poor. And he's tapped this rich vein of support with the young. And he's very adroitly leveraged the social media revolution to win, generating more Facebook and Twitter traffic than any other candidate.

You know, and he sees growth, Scott, almost along the lines of a Maggie Thatcher - that growth is the antidote to poverty. And he led this vitriolic campaign against quotas for minorities and some of the lower castes. This was the ideological polar opposite of a congress party that got trounced. This is a pro-business, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps politician. And many think Modi's got standing to be that way because he came from such humble origins himself. He's now on the cusp of becoming prime minister and he did it by his own wits and on his own steam.

SIMON: President Obama placed a call to the prime minister elect. We should note that this - the United States once denied Mr. Modi a visa because he was dogged by allegations that he didn't do what he should to stem Hindu-Muslim riots in his state in 2002. He comes from a religiously polarized political background. Does this election settle that issue?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, I've asked a lot of analysts that question, Scott, and the consensus seems to be no, it doesn't quiet that question or settle it for all time by any means. The campaign breathed new life into that whole debate, in fact. You know, whether Modi is a Hindu nationalist, a self-declared Hindu nationalist, was going to be a polarizing figure.

And during the campaign he drew heavily on Hindu symbolism. And that helped spur this trust deficit certainly with the Muslim community that suffered during those 2002 Muslim-Hindu riots in his home state. And so the challenge for Modi will be to ensure that the idea of India as this pluralist and inclusive place where all citizens are treated equally is preserved.

SIMON: NPR's Julie McCarthy. Thanks so much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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