What GOP can learn from Modi's election

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

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.

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.

Jeremy Carl

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.

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.

How will Narendra Modi change India?
How will Narendra Modi change India?


    How will Narendra Modi change India?


How will Narendra Modi change India? 03:24
What changes will Modi make in India?
What changes will Modi make in India?


    What changes will Modi make in India?


What changes will Modi make in India? 01:34
Will Modi be India's Putin?
Will Modi be India's Putin?


    Will Modi be India's Putin?


Will Modi be India's Putin? 06:47

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.

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