Testing his legacy: Indian Prime Minister prepares for upcoming elections

Narendra ModiVaranasi, India – On April 11, 900 million Indians go to the polls to choose 543 lawmakers and their leader.

It is the world's largest democratic festival, complex, colorful and chaotic.

It is also a test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who caused an upset in Indian politics after winning the 2014 elections on a wave of Hindu nationalism and promises to fire up the Indian economy.

Modi – and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – aren't necessarily shoo-ins this time around, though. He has broken too many promises and failed to improve the economy, say many former supporters. He has divided the country, firing up Indian Hindus against minorities, say critics. Even so, he has strong backing among Hindus and the middle and upper classes, not least because of his tough on corruption, tough on terrorism (Read: Pakistan) stance, say analysts.

Still, while most analysts say it's impossible to predict the outcome on May 23 after seven phases of voting, one thing is certain: Modi, in spite of the glowing biopic, "PM Narendra Modi: Story of a Billion People," set to hit Indian theaters April 5, won't likely get another landslide.

“I don’t think he is going to win this election easily," said Ajay Gudvarthy, professor of political studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Modi did win easily five years ago on a promise to reform the economy by increasing jobs and making development trickle down. But even as the Indian economy has increased output during his tenure, he has presided over slowing economic growth and rising unemployment the government has taken pains to hide – to 6.1 percent – the highest in four decades.

That slowing growth has partly to do with two of his initiatives, a sweeping sales tax and doing away with the lower currency denominations in order to curb corruption.

Both were shocks to the economy and to a majority of Indians who use small bills to pay for everything.

“He curbed currency and made everyone face cash crisis," said Mohammad Afrazul, 33, a weaver. "People lined up at the banks…Only a tyrant could do this.”

"I am going to vote for anyone but Modi," he added. “He promised to improve the condition of weaving business, but he actually did otherwise.”

Analysts say believe Modi’s popularity has declined mainly because of the economy and his failure to create jobs.

“Modi has become a popular figure when it comes to war and nationalism," said Gudvarthy. "But the same popularity has not reached the rural and common India. He is facing farmers’ wrath.”

Under Modi regime, India has faced four big protests by farmers, who were part of his base due to promises to double their income. They have been abandoning Modi in droves, analysts say.

“Modi said he would double the farmers' income, but he actually reduced it to almost nothing," said Sukaru Lal, 44, a farmer in Mirzapur district of northern India, who took part in the protests. "I am opening a shop to sell daily goods because farming has become a loss for me. If I vote Modi this time, the farming sector will completely collapse.”

“We protested to remind him of his own promises," he added. "We did not ask for anything else. He did not pay attention even after our protest.”

Meanwhile, over the past five years, analysts say India has witnessed a sharp rise in Hindu nationalism that has seen a rise in right-win Hindu groups' power and also violence against minorities like Muslims: Lynchings over the protection of cows – sacred to Hindus – became far more common and Modi was slow to condemn such violence.

Analysts say that push toward nationalism worked initially but that its really all about living conditions in the end.

“Modi is trying to convert (nationalism into) votes – he thinks that Hindus will vote for him in large numbers," said Gudvarthy. "But Hindus have also problems, which he failed to address.”

The main threat to Modi now is the Indian National Congress, which has led India for most of the country’s post-independence history. Its leader, Rahul Gandhi, is part of the Gandhi dynasty that includes Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, his grandmother and father respectively.

Some believe it's likely that following the election, Indian opposition parties band together in a coalition to unseat Modi. In India, a party must receive a majority of the vote to be able to rule and choose the prime minister. In 2014, the landslide for the BJP made this unnecessary.

In spite of the BPJ's economic woes, nationalism is running high in India following a suicide bombing in the disputed region of Kashmir that killed more 40 members of the Indian military in February – the most devastating attack in the region in three decades.

The attack was allegedly orchestrated by Jaish-e-Muhammad, which operates from Pakistan despite being banned by the country. In response to the attack, India launched airstrikes at training camps of the group in Pakistan – the first time Indian war planes have entered the country's territory in decades, escalating tensions to level not seen since the 1999 war. Pakistan diffused tensions by returning a pilot captured during the airstrikes.

Analysts say that Modi has been using the conflict with Pakistan to shore up his popularity: The attack and his response helped promote him as a strong leader.

"India has been facing the menace of terrorism for years," Modi told supporters at an election rally in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. "But there is a big difference now – India will no longer be helpless in the wake of terror."

Sarthak Sharma, 49, a clothing merchant from Varanasi in northern India, says that tough talk is partly why he supports Modi.

“Modi banned older notes, curbing out the corruption from the businesses and everywhere," he said. "He attacked Pakistan many times during his tenure, a step which his predecessors could not do.”

Jabeen Bhatti reported from Berlin.

Photo: The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi interacting with the beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana through video-conferencing, on the occasion of Jan Aushadi Day, in New Delhi on March 07, 2019.
Credit: Courtesy of the Prime Minister of India official website (03/07/2019)

Story/photo published date: 04/04/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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