Modi’s Third Wave Missing In India

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Modi’s Third Wave Missing In India

| Updated: May 21, 2024 14:33

On the campaign trail, doubts were raised whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP are set for an overwhelming victory

Narendra Modi knows how to create waves. Ten years ago, he led the Bharatiya Janata Party to the first complete parliamentary majority India had seen in the last 30 years. Five years down the line, he turned the narrow majority into one that is more decisive, on a surge of support amid tensions with Pakistan. So when Modi, the BJP and the polls started predicting another big win this year, few doubted the coming third wave. Ruchir Sharma certainly didn’t.   

Ruchir hit the campaign trail, with a group of 20 media colleagues. He has covered, with these media colleagues, national and state elections for over two decades. They began the campaign from the east coast to the west, reaching  Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Nowhere on this 2,000 km journey, that took eight days, did they hear the sounds of a wave.

They did not hear any backlash against the Prime Minister either. Just a return to an India before Modi mania, focused on local issues and leaders, with events in New Delhi an afterthought. The urban middle-class stir with pride at Modi’s base case for a third term — that a roaring economy is raising India’s global stature. But many rural voters do not.    

Daily distress

Notwithstanding doubling of subsidies to the poor under Modi, they still speak of daily distress suffered due to rising food prices and of the urgent need for more government relief. 

Their trip started from Andhra Pradesh where the BJP is essentially a junior ally to local parties. At a Modi rally in Rajahmundry, voters did not even mention the prime minister unless they were prompted. They gave a bigger welcome to his ally Pawan Kalyan — a regional film star who launched his own party and spoke in this state’s official tongue, Telugu. Modi had to be translated from Hindi, his words seemed to melt in oppressive mid-afternoon heat before reaching the crowd.  

After three days they reached Hyderabad, capital of Telangana, where chief minister Revanth Reddy of the Congress party said the country is in the grip of “Swiggy” politics — referring to a popular food-delivery app. Candidates are spending up to $15mn per constituency, or more than $1bn in total to win the more prosperous southern states; in return voters expect instant public benefits. 

Outsiders who worry about Modi’s brand of Hindu nationalism miss this increasingly transactional quality of Indian politics; as Reddy told them: “ideology is for libraries”. Parties and voters are driven by pure self-interest. By one count, nearly one in four BJP candidates nationwide are new recruits from rival parties — no prior commitment to its Hindutva ideology is required.

Rising prosperity

They went briefly to Karnataka, where freshly whitewashed homes and wide roads speak of rising prosperity. Thereafter they reached Maharashtra, where cratered state highways reflect its stagnation. Growing far slower than the national average over the past decade and surpassed by Karnataka and Telangana in per capita income, Maharashtra is focused on gritty issues such as suicides among indebted farmers, their travails magnified by a six-month government ban on onion exports to control prices. 

More than in other states, voters in Maharashtra spoke of the BJP as overaggressive, overambitious. They said that the BJP “broke” two regional parties by using financial incentives or threats to steal away local candidates. Uddhav Thackeray, leader of the regional Shiv Sena party, is a former Modi ally turned foe. Uddhav told them what he now tells the voters: that Maharashtra is in decline because Modi favours development in his home state, neighbouring Gujarat. 

Disillusion in Maharashtra matters as it has more seats in the Parliament than any state outside Uttar Pradesh — the heart of the Hindi belt. They  chose not to travel there because Modi’s support appeared so unshakeable. But reports from contacts in the region suggest the BJP may see its wide lead reduced.  

India remains an amalgam of diverse states, tough even for the most charismatic of strongmen to dominate completely. Though Modi is still likely to return for a third term, he could fall short of the hype. The BJP has 303 of the 543 seats in Parliament, and if it wins by a smaller margin, fears that Modi and the BJP are growing too powerful, threatening Indian democracy, will gradually fade. There will be talk of how they can govern with a diminished mandate…

(Ruchir Sharma’s piece has appeared in ‘Financial Times’. The link is https://www.ft.com/content/c832e0cf-9fbd-43b5-a8b7-2685634f1454)

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