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Why India’s Modi looks set for a third term despite economic concerns

South China Morning Post
Syed Munir Khasru
December 14, 2023

As India braces for next year’s national elections, all eyes are on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who seems to be heading for a third term as leader of the world’s largest democracy of about 1.4 billion people and more than 900 million eligible voters. Following his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent victories in crucial state elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, Modi has cemented his position as the clear front runner.

In the face of a slowing economy and unemployment rising to around 10 per cent, the BJP relies on Modi’s nationalist populism for electoral victory. According to a recent survey, 52 per cent of respondents wanted Modi to continue to lead India. However, securing a third term requires Modi to expand his voter appeal, addressing anti-incumbency sentiment.

In the past, ruling parties have typically fallen prey to overconfidence. In 2004, the then-incumbent BJP launched an “ India Shining” campaign to trumpet the country’s economic growth. As party members gleefully counted down the days to polls opening, confident of securing re-election, angry undercurrents were already percolating, especially across rural areas. When results came in, the BJP was defeated by a rural-backed coalition which tapped into pervasive feelings of deprivation and neglect beneath surface-level economic advances.

Learning lessons from history, Modi has avoided a repeat of this strategy, instead promoting inclusive development. Flagship schemes such as distributing 80 million free gas connections to poor households, rural electrification and more than 21 million houses completed in rural areas resonate more than previous elite-centric campaigns.

He champions a vision of “sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas” (“with everyone, for everyone’s progress, with everyone’s trust”), welcoming marginalised groups into the national project instead of catering mostly to urban elites. Will this be enough to overcome the hurdles in his path?

Under Modi, “Hindutva 2.0” signifies a contemporary evolution of Hindu nationalism, emphasising cultural pride and India’s distinct Hindu identity. In the political arena, Modi strategically employs issues such as Kashmir and citizenship to mobilise supporters, navigating religious complexities.

This philosophy integrates subnational identities, uniting them behind shared tenets. The political consolidation of a Hindu bloc transcends caste divisions, reshaping voter identities and emphasising religious affiliations over local ties.

Amid this transformation, there have been concerns about potential repercussions – including instances of anti-Muslim bullying and challenges in the disputed region of Kashmir – adding complexity to the political landscape and raising questions about the delicate balance between religious identity and national unity.
Modi’s campaign strategy is to emphasise the scale of development achieved over two terms, showcasing successes such as household gas connections and roadway expansion. The “ Make in India” initiative, despite mixed results, serves as potent nationalist messaging. He has been credited with improved governance, transparency and efficiency backed by technology adoption.

This approach has yielded electoral successes, but underlying tensions persist. Fissures among groups feeling left behind, such as the dominant Patels in Gujarat or Marathas in Maharashtra, pose challenges. How the BJP addresses these outbreaks of restlessness is a crucial factor, requiring adept management of potential social fissures within the coalition.

In the lead up to next year’s national elections, opposition hopes hinge on highlighting economic management failures, such as youth unemployment of above 23 per cent in 2022. High food inflation disproportionately hits the rural poor and could cut into Modi’s base. While successes in sanitation access, housing and healthcare offer hope for the BJP, expect opponents to play up lingering inequality.

The opposition will point to persistent structural issues in rural areas under Modi’s tenure, which fuelled farmer protests and rural distress. Critics allege inflated claims of progress, pointing to weak employment generation and limited private investment. Incidents of cow vigilantism and religious tensions have raised social stability concerns.

Despite this, Modi remains highly popular. His adept use of populist pledges, cultural narratives and decisive leadership imagery strengthens his agenda-setting power, making it challenging for opponents to undermine his powerful public image. With the absence of a national leader to rally the opposition, early advantages favour Modi.

Meanwhile, the BJP’s opposition is fragmented. The main opposition Congress party, lacking vision and grappling with internal divisions, is struggling to unify regional parties around a cohesive national narrative. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s evolving leadership, evident in initiatives such as the Bharat Jodo Yatra (unite India march), hints at a changing dynamic.

While the scion of the Gandhi dynasty lags Modi in popularity, a more engaged approach could unify the opposition. However, it must bridge ideological gaps and forge alliances to offer a compelling alternative to Modi, which is currently missing.
On the global stage, Modi has leveraged foreign policy to feed national pride by adeptly navigating complex geopolitics, such as joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue while still maintaining close ties with Russia to buy both fuel and arms. Domestically, revoking Kashmir’s special status by scrapping Article 370 of the constitution and the resulting tensions with Pakistan were well received by Modi’s base, and India’s Group of 20 presidency has showcased Modi and India as the leader of the Global South.
As the 2024 elections draw closer, Modi appears poised for a third consecutive victory. His status as a prominent leader from the developing Global South plays well with both domestic and international audiences. A survey by US-based consultancy Morning Consult in September found that Modi was the world’s most popular leader.

As an economic downturn and anti-incumbency pose potential challenges to Modi’s government, addressing job creation and reinvigorating rural economies are crucial for sustaining expectations. For the time being, it seems India is destined for “ab ki baar, Modi sarkar” (this time, Modi’s government).

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