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In record-breaking election, India picks polarizing Modi for next prime minister

May 16, 2014 at 6:05 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In India, the results of the largest democratic election in human history came in today, sweeping into power a Hindu nationalist party whose leader was once barred from entering the United States.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Celebrations erupted in New Delhi today. Supporters of Narendra Modi, the next minister of India, danced as election results were announced.

NARENDRA MODI, Prime Minister-Elect, India (through interpreter): I thank all of you from my heart, and I salute all of you. You all have carried out a great responsibility. Today, in the history of 60 years of Indian democracy, you have created a new record.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Over the course of five weeks, 814 million eligible voters made their way to the polls in the most expensive general election in the country’s history, to replace the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh.

Modi’s opposition party, Bharatiya Janata, or BJP, dealt a decisive blow to the political dynasty of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Their India National Congress Party has dominated in the country since its independence.

Rahul Gandhi fell on his sword at a concession speech earlier today.

RAHUL GANDHI, Vice President, Indian National Congress Party: Congress Party has done pretty badly. There is a lot for us to think about. And as vice president of the party, I hold myself responsible.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Gandhi failed to convince his countrymen that his party could tackle government corruption and revive India’s stagnant economy. Modi capitalized on voter dissatisfaction, with the promise of a new India.

NARENDRA MODI (through interpreter): You have given 60 years to Congress. Try giving me 60 months.

HARI SREENIVASAN: His pro-business is popular with many Indians. As chief minister of the state of Gujarat for four terms, he brought prosperity to the state’s main city of Ahmedabad, emphasizing foreign investments and development of public infrastructure.

While much of India struggles to stay on the world’s economic stage, many residents look to Gujarat’s success as an indication of what Modi could bring to the rest of the country.

MAN (through interpreter): There is no one else capable for the prime minister’s post. For the country’s security, it is very essential for Modi to become the prime minister.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But despite the overwhelming popularity, Modi has emerged as one of the most polarizing politicians across India. His nationalist party has ties to Hindu fundamentalism and Modi himself has a controversial past.

In 2002, violent riots broke out along sectarian lines across Gujarat, killing more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Hindu-Muslim violence reached an unprecedented level since the time of the partition of India and Pakistan. Modi oversaw all of this, as head of the state, and is blamed for doing nothing to stop the violence. The United States revoked the leader’s visa over the incidents in 2005.

For now, however, those issues are far from the minds of Modi’s millions of supporters, who are celebrating their leader’s historic victory.