In Sea Change Election, Young India Ushers In A New Political Era

Guest host Tess Vigeland checks in with NPR's Julie McCarthy about the elections in India and the country's new prime minister, Narendra Modi.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland in for Arun Rath. This week, Narendra Modi and his BJP party won India's general election in a landslide. Modi's historic victory upends years of political domination by the Gandhi family, which has been a ruling power since India's independence. NPR's Julie McCarthy is in New Delhi, and I asked her what Modi's election says about the kind of country India is now?

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Well, Modi inherits a very young India. There's a demographic bulge here of young people and they're aspirational. They're highly educated, increasingly, they're educated. And they're devoted to telecommunications, to the internet culture. And Modi won in no small reason because he was perceived as being on top of that. And a new political era dawned here with the way the BJP ran the campaign. I think business schools are going to study it for its PR, which was. by all accounts, brilliantly executed.

And of course now, India will be without the Congress Party of the Gandhi family in any meaningful way. That was the party that led independence. It's ushered in adult franchise in India. It united India under the idea of secularism, and it seems to be passing from the scene.

You know, there were a lot of watersheds in the campaign and I think one of the important ones not to miss is that women turned out to vote in numbers equal to men, which is a sea change. And you'd have to give some credit to the raised consciousness about the need for women's safety in India, which turned into a huge issue in the past year.

VIGELAND: Mr. Modi has been denied entry into the U.S. since 2005 over his handling of the anti-Muslim riots in his home state. But President Obama did call him this week, invited him to Washington, congratulated him. How much do you think the past will influence the future here?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, I think power is a great legitimizer, and Modi is no longer chief minister. He's now the presumptive prime minister, having been elected in a decisive, historic way. And he's more likely to have that legitimacy conferred upon him. And American foreign policymakers I think are deeply pragmatic. India's a very big ally and I would expect the United States to work closely with Mr. Modi.

You know, that's not to say it's not a delicate subject and it won't all be smooth sailing, and past events do have a way of impinging on the future, but I don't think the events of 2002 that occasioned the United States to deny a chief minister a visa will be an impediment to this relationship at this point. As one observer put it to me, India has moved on.

VIGELAND: Julie, Mr. Modi reportedly has deep interest in China. He's made several trips there. The U.S. of course always looking for allies in its effort to buffer China's influence in the region. Has Modi hinted at what his country's relationship with China might be?

MCCARTHY: For years China and India were mentioned in the same breath as the world's leading large emerging markets. And they then diverged. China took off in ways that India could only dream of. And of course the young people of India want to emulate what China has. And Modi's got to manage those expectations. And so he's very interested in understanding exactly how China achieved what it did, and figures he could learn a lot from China.

But there are other reasons as well. There are longtime border disputes. There are issues over water damning causing friction. And China's projecting a blue water navy and India's interested in making sure it's sea lanes are opened and unfettered. So this relationship is going to be a very important one for Modi to promote and safeguard the interests of India.

VIGELAND: NPR's Julie McCarthy, joining us from New Delhi. Thank you.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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