Will Modi’s popularity hold out for next year’s India elections?

Narendra Modi’s combative tone has won him legions of admirers but a unifying opposition is confident the prime minister is on his way out.

India''s Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election campaign rally ahead of the Karnataka state assembly elections in Bengaluru
Modi's domestic support base seems to be as devoted as ever [File: Abhishek N. Chinnappa/Reuters]

New Delhi, India – Just as he marked four years in office, Narendra Modi bowed on Saturday in front of supporters at a huge rally of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, thanking them for their “unwavering faith”

One year before India’s next general election, that faith in the prime minister appears to be largely intact, as opinion polls conducted by local TV channels this week have shown.

Even more right-wing than all previous BJP leaders, Modi’s combative tone when dealing with his political opponents has both unnerved rivals and won him legions of admirers.

In 2014, he swept to power on a surge of nationalist sentiment and populist rhetoric, with BJP securing 31 percent of the vote and winning 282 seats, 10 more than the majority required – the biggest winning mandate in three decades.

Modi’s rise made many, including India’s liberal left and minorities, uneasy.

His earlier career was dogged by allegations that in 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state, did not do enough to stop religious riots which killed more than 1,000 Muslims.

But Modi’s big winning margin in the last elections was at least partly due to widespread dislike of his rivals, and especially the scandal-hit Congress Party, which won only 44 seats.

Economic promises

Prior to his election in 2014, Modi had vowed seismic changes to Indians’ way of living and doing business, pledging to shake up the moribund economy and eliminate corruption.

One of the key challenges for the Modi administration was to jump-start growth after a belligerent campaign that promised Achche Din (Good Days).

Investors had hoped that the BJP would embark on a round of new reforms to boost growth – but many commentators have pointed out there wasn’t much of that.

“The prime minister’s tenure has been marked by tepid reform and world-class policy errors,” wrote economic analyst Mihir Sharma.

Modi’s high-risk decision last November to scrap high-value banknotes was an unpopular drive but was presented by the ruling party as an anti-corruption measure.

The shoddy implementation of a nation-wide sales tax also upset the trading community.

He has also failed to deal with one of India’s biggest challenges: generate employment for millions of Indians who enter the workforce every year.

He had vowed to create jobs for 10 million youth each year but he is falling woefully short.  India’s jobless rate was around 7.25 percent during the first fortnight of April, compared to five percent in January, the highest monthly rate in the past 15 months, data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy showed.

‘All slogans, no work’

None of these shortcomings, however, have translated into palpable anger against the BJP at the polls in various states.

Experts pointed to this as proof of Modi’s personal equity with voters at large.

But the opposition Congress party says the prime minister is on his way out.

“Four years ago, the people of India removed a samajhdaar (wise) prime minister and elected a chatur (clever) prime minister instead,” senior Congress Party leader and former commerce minister Kamal Nath tells Al Jazeera.

“But now we have seen that he has not kept any of his promises. It’s all slogans and no work.”

The optimism for a better showing at next year’s polls comes as India’s fragmented opposition appears to be finally unifying after repeated trouncing at the polls.

This was evident earlier this week at the swearing-in ceremony of a recently-elected alliance comprising of Congress Party and regional Janata Dal party in the southern state of Karnataka.

The ruling party dismissed the joint opposition show of unity as grandstanding.

Foreign policy focus

Modi’s major focus during his time in office has been foreign policy.

Critics, however, have described it as inward-looking – he is selling India to Indians, they say, and not to the world.

Modi received a rapturous welcome from thousands of adoring Indian-Americans at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 2014. He held similar shows in the UKSingapore and Australia

He has famously hugged almost all world leaders he interacted with, including US President Donald Trump.

But despite a much-publicised affinity between the two, Washington has berated Delhi over a trade imbalance and slapped hefty import tariffs on India’s steel and aluminium exports.

Trump has also made work visas for Indians in the information technology harder to get. He is also denying the spouses of temporary Indian workers to be employed while in the US.

The Modi administration’s high-handedness has also alienated India’s allies in the neighbourhood – from tiny Nepal and Sri Lanka to the Maldives and  Mauritius.

Before becoming prime minister, Modi had lambasted the previous government for a weak stance towards China – an approach he has now reversed as is evident from his informal China trip where he spent hours talking to Chinese President Xi Jinping on a boat ride, in what was officially described as an “agenda-less visit”.

Relation with press

But Modi’s tenure has also further emboldened hardline Hindu factions close to his party while isolating Muslims and other minorities.

While mob attacks on people accused of killing cows or eating beef and assaults against lower-caste Dalits have made regular headlines, the prime minister himself has kept a troubling silence.

Human Rights Watch, a US-based rights group, has accused the Modi government of failing to protect the country’s minorities.

There has also been a rise in attacks against journalists and India has slipped in press freedom rankings.

Modi has had a complex relationship with the press. He has not held a single press conference during his tenure, while journalists have complained about intimidation aimed at stopping stories critical of him.

‘New India’?

Yet, his domestic support base seems to be as devoted as ever, drawn to his skilled oratory and far-right ideals. 

BJP’s re-election next years is “not a challenge but a certainty,” BJP party chief Amit Shah said on Saturday in a press conference in Delhi.

Analysts, however, say Modi has failed to win over new supporters compared to the last election.

“Don’t forget, Modi was elected only by 31 percent of the voters. Now that there is some sort of unity between India’s many opposition parties, their combined voter base would prove to be a handful for Modi in the 2019 election. He has alienated many sections of the society,” senior journalist and author Saeed Naqvi told Al Jazeera.

But even his critics would concede that his government has been high on energy and ideas – the Modi administration’s flagship programmes, such as the Swachch Bharat cleanliness drive and the “save the girl child” (Beti Bachao) campaign, has resonated well with civil society.

Perhaps knowing that he has fallen short of his promises ahead next year’s election, Modi has been making repeated references to 2022 as the new goalpost of transforming the nation.

That year, he said, which marks the 75th anniversary of independence from colonial rule, will signal the beginning of a “New India”.

Source: Al Jazeera