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 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT