7 reasons why Modi’s party got trounced in India’s ‘semi-final’ elections
New Delhi: With his white beard and booming speeches, Modi swept into power four years ago by promoting a populist brand of politics that mixed brawny Hindu nationalist views with lofty economic promises. But on Tuesday, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), got walloped according to elections results released from races held across five states.
The BJP suffered its worst defeat in recent years, losing more than 100 legislative seats, a result that shook the political establishment and left many wondering if Modi is in danger of losing next year’s national election.
Indian pundits described the elections, held in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, as the “semi-finals” of Indian politics. In just a few months, India is set to hold national parliamentary elections.
It appears that Modi, who seemed so invincible not long ago, may be vulnerable as his brand loses its lustre. At the same time, the leading opposition party, the Indian National Congress, once considered comatose, has suddenly woken up.
The results are a “major embarrassment for the government,” said Satish Misra, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. It sends “a dangerous signal” to the BJP that it is losing its grip on states that were crucial to its victory in 2014.
Stinging barbs on Rahul Gandhi backfire
The results are likely to boost the fortunes of the Congress party, which has sought to present itself as a credible rival to the BJP and a potential leader of a broad anti-Modi alliance. The Congress is led by Rahul Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather all served as prime minister of India. During the state election campaign, Modi and other members of the BJP ridiculed Gandhi, 48, as the callow scion of a political dynasty. But the Congress leader can take credit for engineering what appears to be the most significant defeat for Modi since he came to power in 2014. Gandhi “may not be a match for Modi yet, but there’s certainly more acceptance of him,” said Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst in Delhi.
Ignoring farmers’ plight and job creation
“The competition is neck to neck,” said Narendra Kumar, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the capital. Indian voters are famous for passionately embracing a party or politician in one election and then enthusiastically voting them out in the next. Among the complaints against Modi: He has ignored farmers. He cannot deliver on his party’s promises, including creating 1 million jobs a month, which economists said was impossible. The cost of living has sharply increased. Millions of farmers are on the brink of crisis, facing rising fertiliser and electricity costs and lower prices for their produce. Experts say their distress is driven by too much competition, strict export rules and inadequate government purchases. One farmer who said he received less than the equivalent of $20 (Dh73.45) for 1,600 pounds of onions sent the money to Modi to make a point.
Not addressing major economic worries
And something even bigger may be happening. Across India, economic worries are becoming a pressing issue that Modi will have trouble sweeping away. He raised high expectations, promising to attract huge China-style export factories and create millions of high-paying jobs. India’s annual growth rate has been over 7 per cent, but Modi has not turned India into the next China. The amount of red tape in India remains stultifying, and many parts of the country’s manufacturing sector, such as textiles, have suffered widespread layoffs.
Impact of GST and demonetisation
Other sources of discontent are a new tax system put in place under Modi and his decision in 2016 to suddenly replace most of the country’s currency, which was supposed to crack down on money laundering but led to severe cash shortages. The results in India’s agrarian, Hindi-speaking cow belt, where the BJP has dominated or been highly competitive for the past decade and a half, must have been even more deflating to Modi and his team. His party’s headquarters in New Delhi appeared deserted, while wild celebrations broke out at those of the Indian National Congress. Even Modi’s usually superconfident allies admitted to being concerned. “This has been a very intriguing election,” said Seshadri Chari, a member of the BJP’s national executive committee. “Modi is going to be personally worried.”
The deployment of Yogi Adityanath
In the run-up to the polls, the BJP deployed one of its most controversial leaders, Yogi Adityanath, a radical Hindu monk who serves as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. Adityanath addressed dozens of rallies — far more than Modi — where he attacked the Congress party as soft on terrorism and too attentive to Muslim voters. But the BJP sought to play down the significance of the results and Yogi’s role. Sambit Patra, a BJP spokesman, rejected the idea that the polls were a harbinger of things to come. “To say that this is going to affect the national scenario is absolutely bunkum,” he said.
No action against mob lynchings
And, not least, the BJP has been criticised as too soft on violent Hindu extremists, including mobs that have lynched people for slaughtering cows. “The common man does not support mob lynchings,” said Anil Verma, head of the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-partisan organisation in New Delhi. Analysts say more Indians are growing upset with Modi’s party for not cracking down on the mobs, who often twist Hindu nationalist messages espoused by BJP leaders and use them to justify violence. Vigilantes have killed dozens of people, most of them Muslim or lower caste Hindus, in the name of protecting cows. “Indians by and large are not happy with the killing of their fellow men,” Kumar said. “That should be a message for the prime minister before the 2019 elections.”
Can Modi and his party still win in 2019?
The five Indian states that just held elections — mostly rural and representing India’s heartland — are considered a bellwether. But experts have warned against extrapolating too much from these state races to national elections, noting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi still commands a loyal following in many quarters. He is seen as a champion of a bigger, stronger India, whose economy is now sixth-largest in the world. (A decade ago, it was not even in the top 10.) He also remains a compelling orator, able to stir crowds with his booming baritone voice. Modi rose to power by embracing Hindu nationalist politics, and his base remains firmly behind him because they see him as a protector of their values. Most analysts expect Modi’s party to lose many seats next year; the question is whether he will be able to win a thin majority in Parliament.