Speaking Of Asia

Pied Piper of India's politics

Having decimated Congress in the heartland, Mr Modi needs to find a rival to target in the next election


Those who follow The Crown, the Netflix series on Queen Elizabeth II, will doubtless know the memorable scenes in Episode 4 when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, after woodenly refusing to heed expert advice on an approaching weather pattern that would lead to the Great London Smog of 1952 - an event that took at least 4,000 lives - turned it to his political advantage with adroit theatrics and rousing speech.

Something similar was witnessed last week in India, once the jewel in the British colonial empire, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi emerged unscathed and even significantly stronger from elections in five of India's 29 states, including its biggest, Uttar Pradesh.

UP, as it is called, is a state with about four times the population of Myanmar. Contributing 12 prime ministers since Independence, it sends no fewer than 80 MPs to the 543-seat powerful Lower House of Parliament. In the 2014 national election, Mr Modi's charisma, rhetoric and reputation for efficiency helped the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, gain 71 of those seats. State poll results have now given it 312 of 403 seats in the provincial legislature, seven times its previous tally - a stunning and wholly unexpected repeat landslide.

Since the Hindu-oriented BJP had not named its candidate for UP chief minister, there was no question that the vote was for the 66-year-old prime minister who began life helping out in his father's tea stall in distant Gujarat state.

The BJP also handily won in Uttarakhand next door, and stitched up arrangements to take or hold power in two smaller states. It got a drubbing in Punjab, where it is a junior partner to the Sikh party Akali Dal, at the hands of Congress.

With this victory, BJP controls or shares control in 17 state assemblies that account for about 60 per cent of India's population and economic output. Congress, the party of freedom with a tradition that dates back to the late 19th century, controls six states. In the UP state assembly, it got fewer than 10 seats and did poorly even in boroughs that elect Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, who led the Congress campaign in UP as a coalition partner of the now-ousted governing party, Samajwadi (Socialist) Party.


There is no question that Mr Modi, who lives a bachelor existence, is the Pied Piper of Indian politics and has the masses in a Peronist thrall. The striking aspect of BJP's victory in the heartland though is that it came after a fumbled "demonetisation" exercise, when Mr Modi, locking up his Cabinet and taking away the cellphones of ministers to prevent leaks, announced on Nov 8 that he was instantly withdrawing high denomination notes that accounted for 86 per cent of the money in circulation.

Criticised by many economists of repute and conducted against expert advice, the move, meant to uncover unrecorded wealth or "black money", was a high-stakes gamble that hurt everyman, including farmers needing to restock seeds and the 36 million tiny and medium-sized businesses that contribute 40 per cent of exports and employ more than 80 million. Dozens of people died, some while waiting in queues to exchange cancelled money for fresh notes.

The long-term benefits may result in less concealment of wealth but, for now, much of the unrecorded stashes have been comfortably laundered. Still, by painting the move as an attack on the privileged class and pronouncing that he was convinced that the toiling masses would accept temporary hardship for a larger cause, Mr Modi spun magic on an India that has undeniably responded to his call.

Indeed, he seemed to acknowledge his blunder when he told a victory rally over the weekend that "we might make mistakes but our intentions are always pure".

So complete is Mr Modi's dominance that he now has a problem. With the Gandhi family on the ropes and no provincial or national leader approaching his stature, he needs to find a rival to target in the next national election, due in 2019. At the moment, he has none. This does not necessarily work to his advantage - the Modi thrill is to a great extent built on his brilliant take-down of opponents and his ability to frame himself as everything the other is not.


What should India, and the world, expect of Mr Modi?

Some pointers are available.

First, it is clear that his anti-corruption moves have caught the imagination of Indians much the same way the late Indira Gandhi mesmerised crowds with her "Garibi Hatao" (Banish Poverty) slogan in an earlier era. This means a stepped-up drive on black money that will almost certainly start with the real estate market, the No. 1 parking slot for illicit wealth, with gold second. This bodes well for India's long-term governance but will inevitably lead to short term outflows as the rich move money abroad.

Mr Modi sees himself as at least a three-term prime minister, health and physical security permitting. With approval ratings in the 80s as he approaches his fourth year in office, his principal worry may not so much be the economic numbers - exports were up 17.5 per cent year on year in February - as sluggish job creation, brought on by the rapid march of automation. In 2015, his first full year in office, only an estimated 135,000 jobs were created in the organised sector whereas the country needs to find more than a million jobs a month.

For this reason I suspect that if India should get good monsoon rains this summer, putting money in farmers' pockets and keeping food prices down, Mr Modi may be tempted to call national elections early next year, a year ahead of schedule, to consolidate his gains and checkmate early any moves to consolidate the opposition.

Mr Modi is surely aware that charisma can be fleeting; the BJP lost elections to the Delhi state assembly months after the landslide "Modi wave" of 2014 that brought the party to power at the federal level. It also lost the large state of Bihar the following year after key opposition parties, Congress included, stitched up an alliance.

There also is the example of the previous prime minister elected by a landslide - Rajiv Gandhi - who came to power following his mother Indira's assassination in 1984. Ensnared in an arms deal scandal, betrayed by his finance minister and deserted by friends like actor Amitabh Bachchan as his political fortunes waned, Mr Gandhi was booted out of office five years later. In the Gangetic city of Allahabad, home town of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, shoes were flung at the stage in his rallies.

State polls are due by the end of next year in the BJP-run heartland states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and neither provincial government can lay claim to the blemishless record on corruption that marks Mr Modi's federal Cabinet. Indeed, graft is rampant in those parts. Mr Modi cannot chance setbacks in those key states reflecting back on his own record.

At the same time, his proclivity to dominate party and government in the manner of Mr Xi Jinping in China and Ms Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar means that he will not be able to avoid blame when things go wrong, as they have started to do in Myanmar.


India's many well-wishers, who've waited decades for the country to play to its potential, will be heartened by a few things.

Some of his post-poll pronouncements suggest that he will resist the temptation to go down the populist path. India's toiling classes, Mr Modi said, do not look for doles. Instead, they seek opportunity to show their mettle.

The election campaign, and the demonetisation that preceded it, also showed BJP moderating its natural instinct to sharpen communal polarisation towards one that also subtly highlighted class and economic stratification.

This could partially explain why the party did well even in constituencies with large Muslim populations, even though BJP fielded not a single person of the faith and one in five voters came from the community.

A widening of the party's appeal to broader sections of India not only contributes to social stability but will also help BJP win more talent to its fold, including competent personalities in the Congress party who see little future for themselves under the shadow of the Gandhi clan but are put off by the BJP's overtly Hindu orientation.

Mr Modi desperately needs talent in his Cabinet. Following the victory, he promised that the BJP would rule for the benefit of all, "including those who walked with us and those who stood in front of us".

These matters aside, Mr Modi's growing power and charisma will curb the reflexive anathema his moves elicit from opposition parties, large sections of the intelligentsia and a resentful media.

This could reflect not only in economic policy but foreign affairs too. A border settlement with China, for instance, will need bipartisan support because it will involve pragmatic trade-offs that only a strong leader can make, then sell to the people.

By agreeing to be photographed visiting the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi in 2015, and gifting the Saudi king a gold replica of India's oldest mosque the following year, Mr Modi has also shown he can rise above the early prejudices put in him by his Hindu nationalist mentors to acknowledge Islam's role in Indian history and culture.

He now needs to increase minority representation both in his party and in government. Having consolidated Hindu support, his step to greatness lies in being the leader to all Indians.

  • Associate Editor Ravi Velloor is the author of India Rising: Fresh Hope, New Fears published in 2016 by Straits Times Press.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2017, with the headline Pied Piper of India's politics. Subscribe