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Opinion The secret behind millennial support for India’s Modi

A supporter of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party wearing a mask of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows the victory sign while celebrating Modi's early lead at the party's state headquarters in Hyderabad, India, on Thursday. (Mahesh Kumar A./AP)
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Vivan Marwaha is the author of a forthcoming book on Indian millennials.

As the dust settles on India’s general elections, one thing has become clear: Despite a record-high unemployment rate, a slowing economy and widespread agrarian distress, Indians have overwhelmingly decided to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party a second chance to put the country back on track.

This time around, Modi may not have campaigned as an outsider determined to oust the ruling elites. But once again, in a country with an estimated 84 million first-time voters and a median age of just under 28, Modi appears to have ridden a wave of millennial support on his way to a landslide victory.

Although precise data on how different demographic groups voted in this election might take time to emerge, first-time and young voters were Modi’s most significant bloc of supporters in 2014. My research suggests that they remain loyal to him now.

I spent a month during this election cycle traveling around India, interviewing millennials and first-time voters about the political choice in front of them. In that entire period, I heard only one name uttered with confidence: Modi.

“Who else can I vote for? Nobody else can fix India or protect us from Pakistan,” a 25-year-old unemployed engineer in the battleground state of Madhya Pradesh told me. “Look at how he held rich people accountable with demonetization. Look at how he made Pakistan pay for Pulwama.”

In 2014, Modi captured the keys to India’s Parliament by outlining an aspirational agenda for the country: creating millions of jobs, building world-class infrastructure and eliminating corruption. This image was particularly appealing to young voters, who came of age as India’s economic growth began to slow, and often struggled to find well-paying employment. Although disruptive, his decisions to reform the country’s arcane tax code and update its colonial-era bankruptcy rules won him plaudits from the business community and seemed to suggest that he would meet his goals.

But as his term continued, the scale of economic growth promised in 2014 slowed amidst a flurry of self-inflicted challenges. In November 2016, Modi “demonetized” almost 86 percent of the country’s currency, creating a huge cash crunch in a cash-driven economy. Along with the hasty implementation of a new Goods and Services Tax, this took a toll on thousands of small businesses, and even more jobs in the informal sector vanished.

Yet Modi and the BJP managed to package and sell these policies to their young voters with ease. Demonetization was advertised as a bold, courageous move to tackle black money and entrenched corruption, a move only someone as audacious as the prime minister could undertake.

The slowdown in economic growth could still have emerged as a possible flashpoint during the elections. But the February suicide attack on Indian paramilitary forces in Pulwama and the government’s subsequent response — which included ordering air strikes on a terrorist camp in Pakistan — helped marshal vast amounts of support for Modi.

The BJP and its social media ecosystem lit up right after the strikes. Carefully designed memes praising the prime minister went viral on Facebook and WhatsApp, all thanking him for for his courageous leadership. This was a particularly effective means of messaging to Indian millennials, who have largely grown up with social media. Modi’s party was early to the game, cultivating and encouraging a vast right-wing Internet ecosystem to promote its talking points and maintain support among young people.

“He went inside Pakistan and taught them a lesson. He brought Abhinandan back in a day,” young voters at an engineering college in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, told me, referring to Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was captured by Pakistan after his aircraft was downed in a gunfight. All of those I interviewed who had praised Modi’s response to the hostilities reported receiving their news primarily from social media.

This social media ecosystem was also invaluable in presenting Modi’s principal opponent, Rahul Gandhi, as a “pappu” — a lightweight incapable of leading the country. Short clippings of Gandhi’s speeches were taken out of context and shared vigorously, portraying him as a gaffe-making, entitled dynast. The contrast between Gandhi’s elite background and Modi’s personal story — as the son of a tea seller who worked his way up in politics and led the prosperous state of Gujarat — only boosted young support for the 68-year-old Modi over the much younger Gandhi.

But most significantly, young Indians believed they had no credible alternative. “Nobody will give us jobs. We will have to move elsewhere to find employment. But who can fix this problem? Only Modi can clean this country up,” a voter from the engineering college in Indore told me.

This gets to the heart of Modi’s reelection strategy: It involved deflecting focus from serious macroeconomic challenges, running an emotional campaign and presenting himself as the only person capable of cleaning up the proverbial mess that the country finds itself in.

It is not that young Indians did not have a choice in this election. They had plenty. But in the end, the allure of a decisive leader proved more important than the BJP’s economic stumbles.

Read more:

Barkha Dutt: This is Modi’s India now

Rana Ayyub: You know India’s democracy is broken when millions wait for election results in fear

Barkha Dutt: In 2014, Modi ran on aspiration. In 2019, he is running on fear.

Milan Vaishnav: Indian voters are looking for an excuse to back Modi. They may have found one.