May 26, 2017
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration has struggled to make headway on many of its signature initiatives in the face of India's manifold political constraints. Job growth, a core plank of the 2014 campaign platform on which Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to power, is tepid. Relations with Pakistan, India's traditional archrival, are on the rocks as protests, cease-fire violations and cross-border militant attacks endure in the disputed territory of Kashmir. And "Make in India," Modi's vaunted initiative to transform his country into a global manufacturing hub, has had a hard time landing lucrative deals (outside of defense contracts) since its inception in September 2014.
Despite these challenges, however, Modi's popularity looks no worse for wear as he rings in his third year in office on Friday. A reported 61 percent of Indians approve of the government's performance, according to a recent poll widely cited in the country's press. To be sure, the figure represents a three-point drop from the previous year. Nevertheless, considering India's stubbornly low job creation rates — and the furor that erupted when Modi launched a sweeping demonetization campaign — a three percent loss isn't bad. So what's behind the prime minster's enduring appeal?
His vision for transforming India into a self-assured nation at once mindful of its thousands of years of history and ready to take on its future resonated with broad swaths of the electorate. Among the tenets underpinning Modi's vision is Hindu nationalism. At its core, the movement aims to supplant secularism with Hinduism as the defining feature of Indian identity to forge a more unified and assertive conception of nationhood that its proponents hope will lead the country to greatness. Modi, of course, has been selective in choosing which of the movement's guiding objectives to embrace and which to eschew. His political pragmatism rankles the most ideological of his supporters in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP's Hindu nationalist parent organization. But it's a price the prime minister is willing to pay to maintain his appeal across India's vast and diverse territory.
And so far, the approach has paid off. Modi's use of Hindu nationalism has advanced the rightward shift in Indian politics, helping his party gain yet more traction with voters and pass legislative reforms such as the Goods and Services Tax. In 2014, the BJP became the first party to win a majority in the lower house since 1984. Opposition parties have since foundered in their efforts to mount a credible challenge to Modi and the ruling party. The Indian National Congress, the party that spearheaded India's independence movement and gave the country its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, has struggled to find a candidate who can match Modi's charisma. Regional political groups such as the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, meanwhile, are trying to articulate a message that goes beyond the identity-based caste politics that has long defined their agenda.
The BJP made considerable gains in state elections this year and defended Modi's 2014 triumph in Uttar Pradesh. Not even an alliance between Akhilesh Yadav, chief minister of the state's ruling Samajwadi Party, and Rahul Gandhi, vice president of the Indian National Congress (and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty), could stop the BJP. Modi's party claimed a resounding victory in India's most populous state, winning 80 percent of the seats in its legislature and installing a controversial Hindu priest as the new chief minister. The success shielded Modi from some of the political fallout of his administration's shortcomings.
It was also a major coup for the prime minister and the BJP. For all its popularity, the ruling party lacks a majority in the upper house of Parliament. Modi needs control of both chambers in the legislature to advance his "Make in India" campaign. Unless the prime minister can pass proposed land and labor reforms, India's manufacturing industry will be hard-pressed to acquire land for new factories. Companies, moreover, will shy away from hiring workers for fear that they won't be able to lay them off in lean times. But while Indian voters elect members to the lower house directly, state assemblies are in charge of electing members to the upper house. That's why Modi has devoted much of his attention and political capital throughout his first three years in office to winning state elections. And though the prime minister has faced setbacks in this endeavor — the BJP was routed in a vote in India's third-most populous state, Bihar, in 2015 — the victory in Uttar Pradesh offered vindication.
Of course, whether Modi can reap the benefits of the recent state elections depends on the results of the next general elections in 2019. Considering that Uttar Pradesh traditionally serves as a bellwether for the country's politics, however, Modi's prospects for re-election are strong.
As Modi looks ahead to his fourth year in office, he will start thinking about how to ensure a repeat of this year's electoral successes in 2019. He will also continue his quest to overhaul the Indian economy. The reforms are part of a decadeslong liberalization campaign that will outlast the prime minister regardless of the next vote's outcome. But progress is bound to be incremental in a democracy as large and fractious as India's, and in that regard, Modi is already ahead.