India is battling one of the world’s highest coronavirus caseloads, its worst-ever economic slump, shuttered factories, farmer protests and the deadliest border fighting with China in decades.
Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to remain as popular as ever. Opinion polls in Bihar, where from Oct. 28 to Nov. 7 he faces his first major electoral test since the pandemic, show his coalition comfortably retaining control of the state government. A separate India Today “Mood of the Nation” poll in August said 78% rated his performance as “good to outstanding” compared with 71% last year.
One of those supporters is Sanjay Kumar, 22, a carpenter who was beaten by police in April for violating India’s strict lockdown while cycling from the capital New Delhi to his village in Bihar — a journey of more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) — after he lost his job. He’s still unable to find regular work.
“Some people are not getting all the benefits because of corruption in the middle and that is not his fault,” Kumar said, noting that Modi can’t control the spread of the virus if people don’t wear masks. “No one can question his good intentions,” he said. “He is sincerely trying his best to give poor people food and work.”
Many other Modi backers also blame others for India’s woes, and there is no shortage of targets: Federal bureaucrats, state governments, village leaders, opposition parties and even their fellow citizens. The prime minister has helped endear himself to India’s poor by meeting their daily needs with programs to supply cooking gas, toilets and housing, all while taking measures to bolster the status of the Hindu majority over religious minorities.
In the absence of significant national opposition, voters have been willing to give Modi a very long leash, according to Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow at the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This kind of politics, however, is not without its shortcomings,” Vaishnav said. “Mr. Modi was able to make this argument effectively in 2019, but it will be harder in 2024 if he cannot make more rapid progress on the economy, employment and governance.”
As prime minister, Modi has been focused on making India both attractive to global investors and unabashedly Hindu. His Bharatiya Janata Party returned to power in May last year with a thumping majority following a campaign that highlighted his success in providing necessities to the poor, combined with a Hindu nationalist agenda that played up his strongman persona — particularly against arch-rival Pakistan.
Since winning re-election, Modi revoked Article 370 of the constitution that granted special autonomous status to India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and approved a citizenship law that discriminates based on religion. He has also pushed for a national citizens registry in the northeastern state of Assam and laid the foundation stone for the construction of a Hindu temple at a site where a 16th century mosque was razed. A spokesman for Modi’s office did not respond to several requests seeking comment.
“He is popular because he has ideological clarity and he’s only implementing what the BJP had promised in their manifesto, like the promise to repeal Article 370,” said Arun Anand, research director at Delhi-based think tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra and author of two books on the BJP’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. “Politicians keeping their word is rare in India.”
Modi has positioned himself along with other populist leaders across the globe who feed off anxieties that minority groups will one day supplant the majority even though Hindus make up 80% of India’s population, according to Sudha Pai, New Delhi-based political scientist, author and former pro-vice chancellor of the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He’s also been adept at leaving the details of policies to ministers and bureaucrats who take the blame if something fails, she said.
“Now we have a populist regime that has created a leader that can’t do wrong,” Pai said. “He has this way of speaking like a godman.”
Controlling the narrative
Modi has shown he can turn upheaval into political gains. In 2016, his move to abruptly withdraw 86% of circulating currency with four hours notice led to prolonged cash shortages and an economic slowdown that caused hardship across India. Still, his party won a key state in a landslide just months later as his party told voters it helped rein in corruption and tax evasion — even though it ultimately failed to achieve its goal.
Part of his success is an ability to control the narrative. Modi hasn’t held a single press conference as prime minister during his six years in power, instead reaching out to the masses directly through a weekly radio program as well as posts on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. His party’s social media army has effectively deflected blame for problems, including to opposition parties.
“Modi’s ability to reach his message directly to individuals is unsurpassable,” said Neelanjan Sircar, assistant professor at Ashoka University and senior visiting fellow at Center for Policy Research. “I am increasingly convinced of the connection between creating of a powerful charismatic leader and a media-controlled narrative. How do you build trust in somebody? You keep telling stories that build his credibility.”
As India’s COVID-19 outbreak became one of the fastest growing in the world, Modi shared a carefully choreographed video in August featuring him feeding peacocks in his official New Delhi residence during his morning exercise regime. That kind of imagery has helped cement an image of Modi as “a monk-like ascetic who can be trusted with one’s life,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a political analyst who has written a biography on Modi.
Sahebrao Patil, a 60-year-old driver in Maharashtra who suffered a loss of income after the lockdown, is among those who say Modi can do no wrong.
“I believe with all my heart that Modi cannot lie,” he said. “We don’t even ask who’s the candidate. We just vote for Modi.”
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