A State Election In India Reinforces Narendra Modi’s Grip on Power
Big seems too small a word to describe the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Spread over an area roughly the size of Britain, UP is home to about 220 million people–more than the populations of Germany, France and Italy together. With scale comes political heft. Nine out of India’s 15 Prime Ministers landed in New Delhi via UP, including the incumbent, Narendra Modi, whose parliamentary constituency, Varanasi, is in the state. UP also sends 80 members to the powerful lower house of the national parliament, way more than any other Indian territory. It is the political engine room of the world’s largest democracy. Thus, when UP began voting in state polls last month, just over halfway through Modi’s five-year term, all of India sat up and paid attention. And so did many outside India, given the country’s growing influence on the world stage. Modi, 66, a charismatic politician with the power of oratory, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nearly swept UP in the 2014 general elections, taking all but nine parliamentary seats en route to becoming Prime Minister. His own story is compelling: a tea seller’s son who rose to be chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s fastest-growing states, and then winner of the nation’s highest office. But could the Modi magic that propelled the BJP to the biggest national victory for any party in 30 years still sway voters? Or was India tiring of the Prime Minister’s constant sloganeering about economic development, even as the nation of 1.3 billion people struggled to produce enough jobs for its youth? Economists have also raised doubts about Modi’s competence as a policymaker, following a surprise decision in November to scrap high-value currency notes that sparked pain across India’s cash-based economy. The government’s justification was as confused as its execution, with a shortage of replacement notes triggering long queues at banks and ATMs.
At various times, the initiative was billed either as a crusade against “black money”–illicit, untaxed wealth–that would force the rich to declare their hoards of dirty cash or a way to spur India’s digital transformation by weaning it off its dependence on paper currency. But neither objective has yet been realized.
The messaging worked. “The government narrative that the [cash ban] was aimed at rich people with black money won over many voters even if they had suffered because of the ban,” says Bhanu Joshi of the Centre for Policy Research, who traveled through UP as it went to the polls. “Across UP, the language was never about the BJP. It was about Modi.” That’s bad news for Congress, now in opposition and flailing under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson and great grandson of former Indian Prime Ministers. In UP, Congress joined forces with a local party that had been in power in the state since 2012, hoping for a repeat of the result in Bihar state in 2015, when the BJP was trounced by a coalition of regional leaders. Congress played a bit part in the Bihar coalition as a junior partner.
The outcome puts Modi in a strong position to win re-election in 2019, so much so that one of the BJP’s regional opponents was moved to tweet: “In a nutshell there is no leader today with a pan-India acceptability who can take on Modi & BJP in 2019. At this rate we might as well forget 2019 and start planning/hoping for 2024.”
Now, as the cash ban hits the country’s growth rate, the BJP’s overwhelming victory once again turns the spotlight on Modi and his promises–and when he will deliver. “Eventually, there has to be more than the image of the good guy and the guy who has sincere intentions,” says Joshi. “This was not a vote for or against one policy. This was a vote for Modi. And such a huge majority brings huge expectations,” adds Kumar. “It actually poses a different kind of challenge for the BJP. People expect the government to deliver. There are no more excuses.”
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