India’s prime minister is down but not out

Narendra Modi’s admirers seem blind to his poor decision-making | Asia

6/21/2021 7:48:00 AM

India’s opposition remains in disarray. Rahul Gandhi, its current leader, will struggle to muster the allies he needs to oust the BJP

Narendra Modi’s admirers seem blind to his poor decision-making | Asia

.The full toll from India’s now-waning second wave of covid-19 remains unclear. A reasonable guess is around 2m dead from the virus so far, making this the worst calamity to hit the country since the Bengal famine of 1943. But Mr Modi’s woes go beyond happening to be in charge, and perhaps making some bad decisions, at such a terrible time.

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India’s economy, which had been slowing even before the pandemic and then shrank by a dismal 7% in the year to March 31st, has now stalled instead of restarting. Yet even as ordinary folk are squeezed by rising inflation, unemployment, malnutrition and poverty—all made harder by the anxieties of widespread death and disease—the country’s richest are getting ostentatiously richer. The wealth of Gautam Adani, a Gujarati billionaire, increased by $43bn in the pandemic year, before a recent market scare knocked $10bn off his take. With such internal stresses sharpening, and constituencies including farmers, doctors and migrant workers now all bearing grudges, Mr Modi’s party has faced unwonted humiliation in recent local elections. In May voters in West Bengal, where the prime minister had campaigned fiercely despite signs that covid-19 was surging back, handed a walloping majority to his rivals (Mr Modi is pictured on the stump).

His government’s international stature has suffered, too. Chinese troops refuse to budge from Indian-claimed territory that they occupied a year ago, while India’s chest-thumping about being a vaccine superpower swiftly turned embarrassing: Mr Modi’s government had procured far too few jabs even for its own people, let alone for foreigners. Despite an invitation to join last week’s meeting of the

G7 group of rich democracies as a distinguished guest, India’s normally photophilic prime minister was conspicuous by his absence.In short, nearly all the wind of promise that Mr Modi’s premiership started with seven years ago has abruptly blown away. His opponents are, for a change, landing hit after hit. The most recent charge is of hypocrisy. His government relentlessly bullies critics and even platforms, such as Twitter, that carry their messages, yet declares itself a champion of freedom. “The Modi government should practise in India what it preaches to the world,” was the acid comment of Palaniappan Chidambaram, a grandee in the opposition Congress party, following a video address by Mr Modi to the

G7 meeting in which he declared India to be a “natural ally of open societies”.For any other leader such a concatenation of bad news could prove fatal. But Mr Modi is far from an ordinary leader. Despite widening anger not only among Indian elites, but even among loyalists of his Bharatiya Janata Party (

BJP), the chances that the prime minister could be unseated before the end of his term remain virtually nil. Indeed, unless his government commits even more blunders, and its opponents somehow unscramble their current disarray, Mr Modi may have the last laugh. India’s next general election in 2024 could see him return to occupy the controversial new prime ministerial residence he is having built for himself.

This is because Mr Modi has more than luck on his side. He has charisma, enough to sustain his image as a longed-for strong leader even beyond his Hindu-nationalist fan base. Like followers of Donald Trump in America, Mr Modi’s admirers seem impervious to glaring evidence of poor decision-making. Opinion polls, while generally unreliable in India, do reveal clear trends. MorningConsult, which tracks national ratings of the elected leaders of 13 countries, shows a 20-point slide over the past year in the proportion of Indians who approve of Mr Modi. Yet at 66% in early June, he still outperforms all the rest. Another recent survey by Prashnam, an Indian pollster, found that, although 42% of respondents who say they suffered personally from covid-19 blamed Mr Modi’s government, a bigger share blamed local leaders or simply fate.

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Even sceptics who note that Mr Modi’s older, greyer image has lost appeal, and that after so long in power his attacks on rivals carry less sting, admit that he holds another strong card. TheBJPremains a daunting political machine. What public records there are in the murk of Indian political finance suggest that the party rakes in more than four-fifths of known contributions to all parties combined. The

BJPalso enjoys firm backing from the powerful Hindu-nationalistparivaror family, a constellation of groups ranging from trade and student unions to vigilante gangs. Despite occasional setbacks, and the wariness of India’s periphery about the Hindi-speaking heartland where the party is strongest, the

BJPremains the only outfit able to lure political talent and contest elections virtually anywhere in the country.Mr Modi also holds a powerful joker. For all its point-scoring against his government and even its victory in elections here and there, India’s opposition remains as fragmented and vulnerable as ever. Its only hope lies in pulling together to form an unlikely coalition such as the Israeli front, uniting hard-right Zionists with leftists and Arab parties, that recently ended Binyamin Netanyahu’s 12-year reign.

The fact is that most of India’s political opposition consists of regional parties that are content to reach a modus vivendi with aBJP-ruled “centre”. Congress ran India as a virtual fief for decades and still pretends to nationwide influence. But under its current leader, Rahul Gandhi, it lacks both street clout and the tenacity and agility to rally allies. “However embattled Modi may be after getting almost everything wrong in handling the pandemic, Rahul Gandhi, who got almost everything right, is not likely to be the preferred option,” is the judgment of Samar Halarnkar, an editor and columnist. It is not just Mr Modi’s luck that needs to turn for change to happen.

Read more: The Economist »

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