Skip to main content

What GOP can learn from Modi's election

By Jeremy Carl
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu May 22, 2014
India's next prime minister, Narendra Modi, greets supporters at his mother's home in Gandhinagar on Friday, May 16. Modi is the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. After a five-week-long election, the BJP swept the ruling Indian National Congress from power. Official results were expected later Friday. India's next prime minister, Narendra Modi, greets supporters at his mother's home in Gandhinagar on Friday, May 16. Modi is the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. After a five-week-long election, the BJP swept the ruling Indian National Congress from power. Official results were expected later Friday.
HIDE CAPTION
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
India's election: The largest in history
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeremy Carl: Narendra Modi's victory in India can teach U.S. Republicans some lessons
  • He says Modi was able to gain a majority in a complex nation of 1.2 billion people
  • Modi focused on the economy and expanded his party's appeal to wider base, he says
  • Carl: Modi didn't let media define him and made skillful use of social media

Editor's note: Jeremy Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a former resident of India who has written extensively on Indian politics and U.S.-India relations. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremycarl4 The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Imagine that Ted Cruz became the GOP nominee for president in 2016, running against Hillary Clinton. And now imagine that he won the general election in a landslide, getting record-high vote percentage for the Republicans and capturing states and constituencies the GOP had not won for decades.

That seemingly unlikely scenario is the rough equivalent of what happened in India last week, when Narendra Modi, head of India's conservative, pro-business Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and bête noire among the Delhi and Mumbai smart sets, led his coalition to the best general election performance in India in three decades.

Modi will lead India's first majority government not run by the Congress party, which has ruled India for the vast majority of its 67 years of Independence.

Jeremy Carl
Jeremy Carl

While Modi's electoral success first and foremost has implications for India, it has broader lessons to teach as well, ones that Republicans might do well to heed as they attempt to develop a working majority in America's own increasingly multicultural democracy, which, however fractious, pales in comparison to the complex vagaries of Indian politics.

That Modi has managed to create a broad conservative and pro-market parliamentary majority in a country with more than 1.2 billion people, numerous ethnic groups, thousands of castes, and 22 official languages is, to say the least, no small feat.

To understand Modi, and the implications of his victory for American conservatives, one must begin by understanding the existing social and political landscape of Indian elites. The Congress Party, which for decades has championed welfare programs and central planning as its economic identity, has long been India's "natural" ruling party. Congress is more internationalist in its origins, and is favored by India's upper classes and intelligentsia.

How will Narendra Modi change India?
What changes will Modi make in India?
Will Modi be India's Putin?

The BJP, meanwhile, is the party of the Hindu heartland, culturally and religiously conservative, and generally speaking, far more supportive of the free market than Congress. The BJP is also supported by businessmen and industrialists, and increasingly, India's rising middle class.

In fashionable drawing rooms of Delhi, the BJP is frequently treated with dismissal and derision, similar to that faced by Republicans from the Hamptons to Hollywood. It is a measure of elites' continued control of India's image in both the national and international media, that Modi was regularly referred to in the media as "divisive" even after winning a popular mandate unprecedented in the last several decades.

So how did Modi, long dismissed as unelectable, manage to win an unprecedented electoral mandate for his conservative party without compromising on his principles, and what can the GOP learn from him?

First, he embraced populist conservative themes consistently against his entitled and out-of-touch opponent, Rahul Gandhi, who claimed to speak for India's common man while living a life of luxury. Modi regularly mocked Gandhi, drawing attention to his role as the scion of a political dynasty that has ruled India dating back to his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru.

As long as the GOP faces Hillary Clinton and nominates someone without the last name Bush, it will have a compelling similar story to tell. Potential candidates like Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal, both children of immigrants, will provide a welcome contrast to the privileged daughter of Wellesley and wife of the former President

On economics, in the face of a Congress Party that endlessly discussed continued expansion of India's notoriously corrupt and inefficient safety net, Modi relentlessly focused on growth and economic opportunity. His positive message was about growing the pie, not sharing the crumbs, and could have been taken out of the playbook of free market conservatives from Jack Kemp to Ronald Reagan.

Furthermore, Modi's electoral wave decimated the Communist parties in India, which have long been a powerful national force and now find themselves with just 10 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha, India's most powerful legislative body.

Modi referred many times to his successful leadership of more than a decade of the Indian state of Gujarat, where numerous Indian and international businessmen testified to the way Modi's government streamlined regulations, cut through India's notorious red tape, and put people to work.

Compared to other Indian states, Gujarat's governance was known for its efficiency and probity. Conservative economic reformers from Paul Ryan to Scott Walker can take lessons from Modi's successful challenge to the establishment.

Throughout his career, Modi has also been an unapologetic social conservative. His political origins are in the RSS, a group that would be considered nationalist Hindu fundamentalists (somewhat politically analogous to conservative evangelical Christians in the United States). But while not backing down at all from his views during the campaign, he did not make them the focus of his effort—and in India as in America, focus and message matters.

Indians, like Americans, were most focused on the economy, and for that reason, Modi's campaign made sure he was, too. Republican cultural and religious conservatives could do well to study Modi's campaign tactics for winning with unapologetic social conservatism without scaring off moderate voters.

Also notably, though Modi comes from a low-caste background in a country in which it is often said that "people do not cast their vote they vote their caste," he didn't play the "caste card," nor did he allow it to be played against him. Instead, he dramatically expanded the BJP's appeal beyond its traditional upper-caste base, and in the process, he decimated the electoral clout of corrupt caste-based hucksters who have typically wielded heavy influence in North India's Hindu heartland.

Modi's BJP campaigned seriously in areas where the BJP had never contested before. He didn't talk about India's 47%. In India at least, identity politics has been trumped for the time being by the politics of prosperity.

For those from Rand Paul to Susana Martinez looking to write a new GOP narrative on race, Modi's campaign offered an example of forthrightly addressing a core issue of group identity without pandering.

On foreign policy, he projected strength and confidence without unnecessary saber rattling.

Pakistan frequently tested the Congress government, according to militants who said it tacitly cooperated with terrorist infiltrations and other provocations, most notably the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed and wounded hundreds. They will likely be more cautious about testing Modi, who was persistently critical of Congress' often-timid reaction to Pakistani provocations, particularly on their contested border.

Here Modi's example would offer much to a GOP that has wearied of neoconservative interventionism, but is also critical of Obama's passivity and worries that our failure to draw bright lines around our interests has invited provocation.

Modi won on not just substance, but style: He refused to let the traditional media play gatekeeper, instead skillfully using social media to reach out to India's rapidly urbanizing professional classes, to whose aspirations for good governance he spoke so strongly. At a time in which the Republicans find themselves flatfooted in technology compared to the Democrats, Modi ran technological rings around his liberal adversaries.

Some cautions are in order, of course. Campaigning is not governing, and, as Prime Minister, Modi a relative novice on the national and international stage, may not be successful. He must also continue to deal with the legacy of serious religious violence that occurred in Gujarat during his first term as chief minister that left more than 1,000 dead and caused international concern.

While India's Supreme Court cleared him of charges that his government did not act decisively enough against the rioters, he was still blamed by others, including the United States, which refused him an entry visa. There is little doubt that given Modi's history, he will be under a great deal of scrutiny to make sure the tragedies of 2002 are not repeated nationally.

But whether Modi succeeds or fails in governing, the GOP could learn a number of lessons from his successful campaign, one that showed how an allegedly "extreme" candidate of a party disdained by media and cultural elites can achieve unprecedented electoral success without sacrificing its principles.

In that vein, it is perhaps appropriate that Modi began his professional life selling tea in his family's tea stall. In more ways than one, he represents the victory of India's tea party.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT