Indian Prime Minister is down but not out
THISTORY of Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, has been an extraordinary fable of fortune. After running a tea shop in the province of Gujarat, he became the head of his state, then his country, the largest democracy in the world. Yet no one’s luck lasts forever. And for Modi, the current monsoon isn’t the only thing that proves that when it rains, it rains.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on ios or Android.
The full toll of India’s second wave of covid-19, currently in decline, remains uncertain. A reasonable estimate is around 2 million dead from the virus so far, making it the worst calamity to hit the country since the Bengal famine of 1943. But Mr Modi’s woes go beyond the fact that he is in charge, and possibly making bad decisions, at such a terrible time.
India’s economy, which had slowed even before the pandemic, then contracted a dismal 7% in the year to March 31, is now at a standstill instead of restarting. Yet even as ordinary people are suffocated by rising inflation, unemployment, malnutrition and poverty – all made more difficult by the anxieties of widespread death and disease – the richest in the country become ostensibly richer. The wealth of Gautam Adani, a billionaire Gujarati, increased by $ 43 billion in the pandemic year, before a recent market scare took away $ 10 billion. With such internal tensions escalating and constituencies comprising farmers, doctors and migrant workers holding grudges, Mr. Modi’s party has faced unusual humiliation in recent local elections. In May, voters in West Bengal, where the Prime Minister had campaigned fiercely despite signs of a return of Covid-19, handed over an overwhelming majority to his rivals (Mr. Modi is pictured on the stump).
The international stature of his government has also suffered. Chinese troops refuse to move from India’s claimed territory they occupied a year ago, while India’s outrage over being a vaccine superpower quickly became embarrassing: Mr. . Despite an invitation to join last week’s meeting of the g7 group of wealthy democracies as a distinguished guest, the normally photophile Indian Prime Minister was conspicuous by his absence.
In short, almost all the wind of promise that Mr Modi’s prime minister started with seven years ago has abruptly dissipated. His opponents are, for once, landing blow after blow. The most recent charge is that of hypocrisy. His government relentlessly intimidates critics and even platforms, like Twitter, which carry their messages, while declaring itself a champion of freedom. “The Modi government should practice in India what it preaches to the world,” Palaniappan Chidambaram, a senior opposition party congressman, said following a video speech by Mr. Modi at the g7 meeting in which he declared that India was 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 growing anger not only among Indian elites, but even among supporters of her Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), the chances that the Prime Minister will be overthrown before the end of his term remain practically nil. Indeed, unless his government makes more blunders and his opponents somehow resolve their current disarray, Mr. Modi could have the final say. The next general elections in India in 2024 could see him return to occupy the controversial new residence of the Prime Minister that he had built.
This is because Mr. Modi has more than luck on his side. He has sufficient charisma to maintain his image as a much-coveted leader, even beyond his nationalist Hindu fan base. Like Donald Trump’s followers in America, Mr. Modi’s admirers seem oblivious to the glaring evidence of poor decision-making. Opinion polls, while generally unreliable in India, reveal clear trends. MorningConsult, which tracks national ratings of elected leaders from 13 countries, shows a 20-point drop over the past year in the proportion of Indians who approve of Mr. Modi. Yet at 66% at the start of June, it still outperforms all the others. Another recent survey by Prashnam, an Indian pollster, found that while 42% of those polled who said they had personally suffered from covid-19 blamed Mr Modi’s government, a larger share blamed local leaders or simply destiny.
Even skeptics who note that the older, grayer image of Mr. Modi has lost its appeal, and that after so long in power his attacks on rivals have less bite, admit that he holds another strong card. . the BJP remains a formidable political machine. Public records in the dark of Indian political finance suggest that the party collects more than four-fifths of known contributions to all parties combined. the BJP also enjoys the strong support of the powerful Hindu nationalist parivar or the family, a constellation of groups ranging from professional and student unions to self-defense gangs. Despite occasional setbacks and the mistrust of the outskirts of India of the Hindi language core where the party is strongest, the BJP remains the only organization capable of attracting political talent and running for office virtually anywhere in the country.
Mr. Modi also holds a powerful wild card. Despite all its points scored against its government and even its election victory here and there, the Indian opposition remains more fragmented and vulnerable than ever. His only hope is to unite to form an unlikely coalition such as the Israeli front, uniting far-right Zionists with left-wing and Arab parties, which recently ended the 12-year reign of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The point is that the bulk of the Indian political opposition consists of regional parties which are content to achieve a modus vivendi with a BJP-governed “center”. Congress has ruled India as a virtual stronghold for decades and still claims to have influence nationwide. But under its current leader, Rahul Gandhi, he lacks both clout in the streets, tenacity and agility to rally allies. “As besieged as Modi is after having almost everything wrong in the management of the pandemic, Rahul Gandhi, who has understood almost everything, will probably not be the preferred option,” Judge Samar Halarnkar, editor and columnist. It’s not just Mr. Modi’s luck that must turn for change to happen. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Le blues de Modi”