“I dearly love a presidential year,” E. B. White wrote in 1956. “What capers! What laughs and spills! And—at the end of the line—a real, live president. And the people’s choice at that.”
There weren’t many laughs or capers in India’s elections this year. Sixty-six percent of the country’s 814.5 million eligible voters participated, and most voters appeared to take the election very seriously. Nevertheless, it was by and large a depressing campaign season. The ruling Congress Party—dominated by the Gandhi dynasty for generations—had to play defense, as it tried to rationalize its dismal performance over the past five years. The insurgent Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) was in ferocious attack mode: sarcastic, accusatory, haranguing.
At the end of it all, the BJP’s Narendra Modi, formerly the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, was the real, live prime minister. The BJP’s win was described in the press as “historic,” “momentous,” and “game-changing.” In fact, 69 percent of eligible voters did not vote at all, voted for one of the country’s many regional parties, or voted for the Congress Party. Only 31 percent of the electorate actually voted for the BJP—not exactly a sweeping mandate. So why does it still feel like one?
Modi campaigned brilliantly and tirelessly. His was the first campaign in India to be professionally designed and...