Milan Vaishnav is a senior fellow and director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
If the intensity of human suffering is steadily rising, so too is anger against India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The degree of fury — especially in urban centers and among the middle class — directed toward Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government is arguably the highest it has been in the seven years Modi has held office.
This week, a Post headline read: “In India’s devastating coronavirus surge, anger at Modi grows.” The Guardian reports that crematorium staffs and relatives of those who have perished have focused their ire on the prime minister and his government. Even some Indian commentators suspect that Modi really will pay a political price this time. But while the outrage is real and the misery immense, the idea that voters will hold Modi to account is no sure bet.
For starters, most political analysts failed to anticipate the BJP’s mammoth electoral rout in 2014, which first propelled Modi to the nation’s top job. While observers expected the BJP to emerge as the largest party, few predicted it would win an overwhelming parliamentary majority — the first time an Indian party had achieved such a feat in three decades.
Five years later, when Indian voters returned to the polls, conventional wisdom held that Modi would face the headwinds of “anti-incumbency” and that his party would lose seats. After all, incumbents in India are actually more likely to lose than win reelection. This argument was bolstered by the fact that Modi had committed his fair share of own goals, not least his quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful 2016 gambit to invalidate high-value currency notes to stamp out “black money.” However, Modi proved his critics wrong once more, not just retaining his grip on power but also expanding his party’s parliamentary tally.
Therefore, any assessment of Modi’s future prospects must start from a place of humility. If election observers had their fingers on the pulse of the Indian voter, they would have forecast consecutive landslide general election victories for Modi’s party — yet few did.
Indeed, there are structural reasons to doubt the idea of a voter backlash against Modi. For starters, India’s next general election will probably be held in 2024; three years is practically a lifetime in political terms. While India’s staggered calendar of state and local elections allows voters numerous opportunities in the interim to punish the BJP, evidence suggests that Indian voters behave quite differently in state versus national elections.
Furthermore, Modi exhibits a unique political resilience. Just consider the events of the past year: Chinese military forces made fresh incursions into India, temporarily occupying more sovereign Indian territory than at any time since the rivals’ 1962 war; the central government’s stringent nationwide lockdown last spring resulted in a nearly 24 percent contraction in economic activity; and, amid the chaos of that quarantine, India experienced the biggest internal migrant crisis since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. And yet, available polling suggests that Modi’s popularity was hardly dented by those events. Modi’s control of information — fueled by a mix of repression, media self-censorship and social media savvy — allows him to shape the public narrative.
In many democracies, voters assess whether their lives have improved during a government’s tenure to determine whether the incumbent should be kept in power. But voters in India — and in other democracies where populist leaders hold sway — often follow a different path: They place their trust in a leader they find credible and then find ways to justify their support for their favored candidate.
Additionally, India’s principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress, is stuck in time. It is a party with a dynastic leadership, whose long hold on national power fueled complacency and entitlement and whose organizational foundations and ideological moorings desperately need reimagination. The rest of the political opposition is fragmented and lacks a leader with the moral authority to corral any anti-Modi fervor. The bottom line? There is, at present, no figure in the national theater of politics who can go head-to-head with Modi.
If there’s one thing the confluence of populism and the pandemic has taught us, it is that nothing is certain in politics. Even in the United States, though President Donald Trump badly bungled the government’s pandemic response, he nearly won reelection: Had he won just 43,000 more votes in three states — Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin — the electoral college would have been deadlocked.
Modi has proven to be a master of reinventing his public persona, shifting from Hindu nationalist hard-liner in the 2000s to reformist technocrat in 2014 to welfare modernizer in 2019. By 2024, don’t be surprised if Modi brandishes yet another face — one that will allow him to elevate perception over performance to return for another term.