KHUDANA, India — The three helicopters appear like a mirage out of the white-hot sky and descend toward a tiny village in northern India. For hours, thousands of people have waited in 95-degree heat for the man they hope to reelect as the country’s prime minister. The thrum of the rotors brings them to their feet, and they chant his name in a thunderous roar: Mo-di! Mo-di! Mo-di!

When Narendra Modi takes the stage — right on time — he delivers a speech bristling with nationalist fervor. Together, he tells the crowd, they will create a “new India.” It is a place where the armed forces are respected, the corrupt are fearful, and terrorists are killed “in their homes.” Modi watches over the nation, he says, while his opponents undermine it.

Nearly 900 million eligible voters are set to choose the leader of the world’s largest democracy in staggered polls starting Thursday. But Modi is framing the election as a referendum on a single man: himself.

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Much like President Trump, Modi, 68, is both polarizing and charismatic. In 2014, Modi’s party — the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP — won a once-in-a-generation landslide. Modi swept to power on a desire for change and the belief that he would transform India, a country of 1.3 billion people, and unshackle its economy. 

Five years later, those lofty expectations have not been met. The economy is expanding but not creating enough jobs, while farmers are struggling with debt and rising costs. Much depends on whether Modi can persuade Indian voters to focus on nationalist pride rather than bread-and-butter issues in a campaign based less on hope than on fear. 

At the rally, a local BJP candidate urges the crowd to shout so loudly that it will be heard in Pakistan, India’s neighbor and rival. Sumit Kumar, 24, readily obliges.

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Modi “has united the country against terrorists,” says Kumar, who works on his family’s sugar cane farm. “I don’t need jobs, or electricity or roads. We only want our country free from fear.”

Modi’s critics say he has an autocratic streak and seeks to turn India — officially a secular republic — into a “Hindu rashtra,” or Hindu nation, to the detriment of the country’s religious minorities, who include Muslims and Christians. Reports of violence, including lynchings, by Hindu extremist groups have increased during Modi’s tenure. Modi has condemned such acts.

At stake in this election is not “a question of a small change in economic policies,” said Prannoy Roy, an election analyst and pollster who has observed Indian voting for three decades. “It’s the whole idea of India that is being determined this time.”

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Modi remains favored to win reelection, albeit with a smaller number of seats in India’s Parliament, which would oblige him to lead a coalition. His popularity outstrips that of his main rival, Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Indian National Congress. 

Despite rural discontent and rising unemployment, Modi benefits from a reservoir of goodwill among voters. Many praise him for battling corruption and taking a muscular approach to national security (sometimes literally: Modi has boasted of having a 56-inch chest).

The massive polls will unfold in seven phases, with results for India’s 543 parliamentary constituencies announced on May 23. A hint of the results will come four days earlier, however, when voting concludes and exit polls are released.

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'He's no economic reformer' 

The campaign took an unexpected turn in February when a Pakistan-based terrorist group killed 40 Indian paramilitary officers in the disputed region of Kashmir. India retaliated by launching airstrikes on what it said was a militant training camp inside Pakistan, setting off the most serious confrontation between the two nuclear-armed neighbors in decades.

It is not clear whether India hit anything in the airstrikes or if its missiles caused any casualties. But on the campaign trail, Modi repeatedly refers to the strikes as evidence of his resolve. Billboards in Saharanpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, feature his face with the words “Penetrated enemy territory and attacked terrorists.” 

The jingoistic tone of Modi’s campaign marks a departure from five years ago, when he won over voters with promises of creating millions of jobs and rooting out corruption. He emphasized his humble roots as the son of a tea seller and his 13-year track record as chief minister of Gujarat, a state in western India where he oversaw rapid economic growth and the implementation of business-friendly policies. 

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He also presided over the deadliest outbreak of communal violence in recent Indian history, when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in three days of sectarian riots in 2002. A special investigating team cleared Modi of involvement in the riots. The violence remains a blot on his reputation and previously led the United States to deny him a visa.

When Modi became prime minister in 2014, India’s business community was jubilant. They saw him as a politician who had the will — and the majority in Parliament — to accelerate economic growth by reforming land and labor laws and privatizing state-owned businesses. 

But Modi did not deliver on that kind of sweeping legislation. “They have tinkered a bit here and a bit there, but they haven’t really moved forward strongly on the reforms front,” said Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister who quit Modi’s party last year. “He’s no economic reformer.”

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Sinha credited the government with introducing a much-needed bankruptcy code. But he slammed its move to invalidate most of India’s bank notes in 2016, a radical step known as “demonetization.” The policy aimed to curb corruption but depressed economic activity and dented employment.

Modi’s track record on jobs, meanwhile, is a sore spot. Millions of young people, many of them college graduates, continue to apply for thousands of vacancies in menial government positions, a reflection of the shortage of well-paid, stable jobs. The country’s unemployment rate rose to 6.1 percent in 2018 — a 45-year high — according to figures from India’s national statistics organization that were leaked to the media after the government sought to squelch them.

The Modi government has defended its track record on jobs by referring to alternative measures of employment, which economists say are flawed or incomplete. It also says it has achieved significant reforms, such as the introduction of a national goods-and-services tax, which previous governments tried but failed to accomplish.

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“The real problem is there are a number of people in this country who only want to perceive and spread gloom,” said G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a BJP spokesman. They aim to “create some kind of negative perception about the government, but the reality on the ground is different.”

'The man is honest'

 Yet there are signs that voters are unwilling to give Modi another dramatic mandate. After the rally in the village of Khudana in western Uttar Pradesh, Modi departed in a helicopter churning clouds of ocher dust in its wake. At a neighboring roadside food stall, there was little praise for his policies. Bhupendra Singh, 28, who runs the stand, said he voted for Modi’s party in 2014 but will not do so again because of the lack of jobs in the area.

His father, Mahendra, 65, was sitting on a charpoy, a four-legged cot strung with rope. He grows sugar cane, wheat and mangoes on the land behind the food stall. Like other farmers in the area, he was angry that the payment for his sugar cane crop from local mills was delayed for a year, something Modi had pledged to resolve. But Singh still planned to vote for the BJP, citing Modi’s integrity. “He hasn’t done anything,” Mahendra Singh said. “But the man is honest.”

In nearby Babupura, a village of mostly Muslim farmers, residents said they, too, voted for Modi in 2014. But today, pledges he made in his first campaign — including a vow to double farmers’ incomes — elicit cynical laughter. Voters in the village said they are disturbed by the divisive rhetoric of Modi and fellow members of the BJP, especially the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. (Adityanath recently said opposition parties were infected with a “green virus” that should be wiped out. Green is traditionally associated with Islam.)

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If Modi is reelected, “our situation will sink further,” said Mohammad Khalid, 30. “Hindu-Muslim harmony will be finished.”

Down the road in the city of Saharanpur, about 200 laborers gather each morning at 7 across from the railroad tracks. They wait there for hours for the chance to earn a day’s wages, usually in construction, at a rate of 400 rupees ($6) for the day’s work. All agree that their livelihoods deteriorated after Modi’s radical demonetization move in 2016.

“We come here every day, then we go home,” said Pramod Kumar Bainwal, 38, with some bitterness. “This government is not for the poor.” 

Yet he planned to vote for Modi, anyway. “The most important thing is national security,” Bainwal said. “Modi has done the best work.”

Tania Dutta contributed to this report.

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