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India's strongman strengthened by Uttar Pradesh

VARANASI (India) • India's Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a mesmerising orator and, this month, a campaign crowd of more than 50,000 showed up in Deoria, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, to hear his story. They know and love the part about how this son of a tea seller rose through the party ranks with no help from family connections. But the rest of his rags-to-power tale is changing fast.

Mr Modi took office in 2014, billing himself as a pragmatic business reformer who could restart economic growth in India.

But the promised growth has not followed and, in the last year or so, he has been pitching himself as a champion of the poor.

"They" - the wealthy elites, the long-ruling Congress Party and its Gandhi family dynasty - "have been stealing from you for 70 years, and I will give India back to you," he told the Deoria crowd, which roared its approval.

At a time when voters worldwide are rejecting established leaders and turning to populists who promise aggressive solutions for their economic frustrations, Mr Modi is sensing the mood and increasingly positioning himself as a populist strongman. He is now running the most centralised administration India has seen in decades. And the strategy is working with a lot of voters.

On Saturday, his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, decisively won the election in Uttar Pradesh. It is India's most populous state, with more than 200 million people,with an annual per capita income less than half the national average of about US$2,000 (S$2,800).

It is likely that Mr Narendra Modi's election win in India's most populous state can serve only to strengthen his populist convictions.
It is likely that Mr Narendra Modi's election win in India's most populous state can serve only to strengthen his populist convictions. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Uttar Pradesh is a powerful base for a born-again champion of the poor, and Mr Modi's victory here stands as a popular endorsement of his recent makeover. It may encourage him to centralise power even more as national elections approach in 2019.

Mr Modi's message has turned 180 degrees. In 2014, he promised "minimum government, maximum governance" - a streamlined administration that would not interfere in the private sector.

He talked about attracting multinationals with tax breaks, about privatising state companies and business-friendly land reforms.

Now, he speaks of only helping the poor, providing loan waivers to farmers, giving out free cylinders of gas and cleansing the system of corruption and the streets of filth.

Ostensibly, the focus of the Uttar Pradesh vote was to choose a new state chief minister but it became a referendum on Mr Modi and his new direction. The other parties named a candidate but Mr Modi asked people to vote for the BJP and allow him to choose their chief minister. The subtext of his speeches was that only he could solve India's problems.

By the final days of the campaign, the Congress Party leader, Mr Rahul Gandhi, was giving listless speeches to bored crowds.

The Prime Minister proved surprisingly impervious. Back in 2014, he had promised to revive economic growth, create jobs and decentralise the government by empowering state chief ministers.

But, today, growth remains stuck at about 5 per cent to 6 per cent. India is not creating the millions of jobs needed to employ its rapidly growing population, and far from empowering new chief ministers, Mr Modi is expected to install a loyalist in Uttar Pradesh whom he can control.

I spent five days following the campaign and it became clear why Mr Modi is so resilient, including his can-do reputation and his success in battling the scourges of corruption and inflation. In India, rising food prices have toppled many leaders, including his predecessor, Mr Manmohan Singh.

But under Mr Modi, inflation has fallen from double digits to 3 per cent. This was partly the lucky result of falling oil prices, and partly a credit to his budget restraint.

The unattached Prime Minister is also seen as free of grasping family ties, and thus less corruptible. His three-year-old administration is untouched by scandal, a rare achievement. Many voters thus accept Mr Modi's argument that corrupt elites had been failing since independence in 1947, and his clean administration deserves more than three years to deliver on "vikas", or development.

My travels took me to Varanasi, a Hindu holy city that is the PM's home constituency in Parliament. Residents blame state authorities for the squalor here, not Mr Modi.

Mr Modi's makeover as a strong-arm champion of the poor is thus tapping into India's fundamentally socialist DNA. His most striking use of state authority came on the evening of Nov 8, when he announced that India would begin withdrawing large currency bills - 86 per cent of the currency in circulation - starting at midnight.

Advertised as a way to force wealthy tax dodgers to turn in their "black money" and catch them unawares, the scheme also threw the lives of poor savers into chaos. Yet, Mr Modi has managed to portray himself as a can-do leader and critics of the currency cleansing as elitist outsiders.

"On one hand are those who talk of what people at Harvard say and, on the other, is a poor man's son who through his hard work is trying to improve the economy," he said at the Deoria rally.

The early Mr Modi, with his talk of "minimum government", was often compared with Mr Ronald Reagan but now the comparison is more often to President Donald Trump. Not since the late 1970s - when supporters of Ms Indira Gandhi would say that "India is Indira, Indira is India" - have so many identified with one leader.

Mr Modi makes his grand entrances alone and dominates the national conversation. In Uttar Pradesh, some voters could not name a leader other than him. For all his oratorical gifts, he rarely meets reporters and his aides are openly dismissive of the Indian press and its role in a democracy.

The Prime Minister is also turning inward. Early on, he worked to raise India's global profile, travelled often to foreign capitals and sought peace with archrival Pakistan. Lately, he has travelled mainly to Indian state capitals and adopted his party's old view of Pakistan as an incubator of terror. His message to the BJP faithful: Expand our domestic base so that our brand of Hindu nationalism faces no obstacles.

As the campaign unfolded, Mr Modi's team built on an old BJP theme, about how previous governments had catered to the 20 per cent Muslim minority in Uttar Pradesh, reserving for them unfair shares of public jobs, services and welfare assistance.

Later, a top aide of Mr Modi's insisted to me that this was a "development" issue but the sectarian overtones seem clear.

The BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate for any of the 400 legislative positions at stake in Uttar Pradesh.

In Delhi, some political analysts argue that Mr Trump, with his attacks on the media and immigrants, has freed Mr Modi to embrace this more exclusive nationalism.

So the rise of Western populists is now emboldening peers in Asia.

Mr Modi is bringing relative political stability to India by fragmenting the opposition and concentrating power in his hands, thus shifting the driver of economic growth from the private sector to the state, and freeing himself to conduct radical economic experiments like his currency cleansing policy. And now, with his election victory in India's most populous state, his populist convictions are likely only to intensify.

NYTIMES

• Ruchir Sharma, author of The Rise And Fall Of Nations: Forces Of Change In The Post-Crisis World, is the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2017, with the headline 'India's strongman strengthened by Uttar Pradesh'. Print Edition | Subscribe