Modi's next moves
To prove he can govern as well as he campaigned, he must focus on economic growth and civil rights.

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Article Highlights

  • To prove he can govern as well as he campaigned, he must focus on economic growth and civil rights.

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  • For the first time ever, India's traditionally left-leaning politics has moved decisively to the right.

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  • India will benefit from having elected a popular leader who has a mandate to make sweeping changes to fix the economy.

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The simplest way to understand the enormity of the Bharatiya Janata Party's victory Friday in India's election is to place it in historical context.

For the first time since 1984, India's voters have given a single party rather than a ragtag coalition a majority in Parliament. The BJP won 282 seats, 10 more than the 272 needed to reach the halfway mark in the 543-seat lower house of Parliament. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coalition snagged 336 seats.

For the first time ever, India's traditionally left-leaning politics has moved decisively to the right. Even when it won more seats than the left-of-center Congress Party in three elections in the late 1990s, the BJP always lagged its rival in share of the popular vote. This time the BJP snagged nearly one third of the national vote, while Congress claimed less than a fifth. The BJP also made inroads into southern and eastern India, outside its traditional strongholds in the north and west.

The rightward swing is all the more notable because incoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to the conservative wing of India's conservative party. Unlike the last BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004), Mr. Modi cut his teeth in politics battling Congress when it briefly suspended democracy in the mid-1970s, not admiring Jawaharlal Nehru's parliamentary eloquence in defense of socialist policies in the 1950s.

Congress itself has been reduced to a rump. The 44 seats it won is less than half of its previous low of 114 seats in 1999. Congress has proved naysayers wrong before by bouncing back. Still, for the first time talk of the possible extinction of a party that has ruled India for all but 13 years since independence in 1947 seems plausible. And the two main communist parties, which have traditionally wielded influence both inside and outside Parliament and helped set the tone for much anti-capitalist and anti-Western discourse, have been reduced to a footnote. Together they hold a meager 10 seats.

All this is for the good. For too long, India has been held back by the empty pieties and harmful policies of Congress-style socialism. But for Prime Minister Modi to become the game-changing historical figure he appears to aspire to be, he'll need to prove that he can govern as well as he can campaign. That means doing two things right: reviving the economy and safeguarding civil liberties.

On the economic score, the rise of Mr. Modi signals a major change in the vocabulary of Indian politics. Unlike most Indian politicians, the incoming prime minister has flaunted his closeness to business rather than shied away from it. He preaches a Thatcherite mantra of "maximum governance, minimum government." His closest economic advisors include some of India's most principled champions of markets, including Columbia University economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, and the Center for Policy Research's Bibek Debroy.

Yet Mr. Modi campaigned cautiously, filling his speeches with gauzy promises of new public works and dazzling cities. He refused to take aim at the Congress Party's populist programs, such as a wasteful employment-guarantee scheme and a promise of subsidized food grain for two-thirds of the population. Some critics also fear that the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (national volunteer corps), of which Mr. Modi is a lifelong member, hasn't quite given up its outmoded attachment to small-scale industry and mistrust of foreign capital.

Now that he has a mandate, Mr. Modi no longer needs to protect his left flank from attack. He should quickly stamp his authority on economic policy by picking a market-friendly finance minister. He should move to scrap a destructive retroactive tax instituted by the previous government, privatize a clutch of loss-making state-owned companies, and publicly pledge to move India up 50 places in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rankings during his term.

On civil liberties, Mr. Modi's task is considerably easier. All he needs to do is prove the naysayers wrong. To his credit, Mr. Modi focused on development rather than identity politics during his campaign. The election results show that most voters were unswayed by the single darkest spot in Mr. Modi's record: the 2002 anti-Muslim riots that occured in Gujarat on his watch as that state's leader, in which around 1,000, mostly Muslims, were killed. (A Supreme Court investigation cleared Mr. Modi of culpability in the incident.)

Most, but not all. Muslim voters continue to mistrust Mr. Modi—only an estimated 9% voted for him, though that's more than twice as many who picked his party five years ago. The new government must reassure the community that it will be treated fairly. It also needs to come up with ways to help the Muslim minority while rejecting divisive policies such as quotas in jobs and education championed by left-leaning parties. Mr. Modi's "India First" slogan offers a place to start, but expanding this beyond a bumper sticker into policies will be a challenge.

The new leader also should take seriously the concerns of those alarmed by his party's history of banning or harassing controversial or critical books and authors. A start would be to resist the temptation to take revenge on the many media outlets that were openly, and sometimes unfairly, critical of candidate Modi. The most obvious sign of a robust media will be one just as critical of Mr. Modi in office as it was when he was in opposition.

India will benefit from having elected a popular leader who has a mandate to make sweeping changes to fix the economy. But it will benefit more if at the same time it remains a noisy democracy where nobody is above criticism of all kinds.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com. Follow him on Twitter @dhume

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