Modi’s Party Is Trounced in India’s Semifinal Elections

The party, widely known by the initials BJP, suffered its worst defeat in recent years, losing more than 100 legislative seats.


Is India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, in trouble?

With his white beard and booming speeches (and supposedly 56-inch chest), Modi swept into power four years ago by promoting a populist brand of politics that mixed brawny Hindu nationalist views with lofty economic promises.

But on Tuesday, his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, got walloped according to elections results just released from races held across five states.

The party, widely known by the initials BJP, suffered its worst defeat in recent years, losing more than 100 legislative seats, a result that shook the political establishment and left many wondering if Modi is in danger of losing next year’s national election.

The elections were held over the past several weeks, but results were not announced until Tuesday. Indian pundits described the races, held in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, as the “semifinals” of Indian politics. In just a few months, this country of 1.3 billion people who speak dozens of languages and live across an incredibly varied landscape from Himalayan mountaintops to tropical isles is set to hold national parliamentary elections.

It appears that Modi, who seemed so invincible not long ago, may be vulnerable as his brand loses its luster. At the same time, the leading opposition party, the Indian National Congress, once considered comatose, has suddenly woken up.

“The competition is neck to neck,” said Narendra Kumar, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the capital.

Indian voters are famous for passionately embracing a party or politician in one election and then enthusiastically voting them out in the next.

Among the complaints against Modi: He has ignored farmers. He cannot deliver on his party’s promises, including creating 1 million jobs a month, which economists said was impossible. The cost of living has sharply increased. And, not least, the BJP has been criticized as too soft on violent Hindu extremists, including mobs that have lynched people for slaughtering cows, a revered animal in Hinduism.

“The common man does not support mob lynchings,” said Anil Verma, head of the Association for Democratic Reforms, a nonpartisan organization in New Delhi.

Analysts say more Indians are growing upset with Modi’s party for not cracking down on the mobs, who often twist Hindu nationalist messages espoused by BJP leaders and use them to justify violence. Vigilantes have killed dozens of people, most of them Muslim or lower caste Hindus, in the name of protecting cows.

“Indians by and large are not happy with the killing of their fellow men,” Kumar said. “That should be a message for the prime minister before the 2019 elections.”

The five states that just held elections — mostly rural and representing India’s heartland — are considered a bellwether. But experts have warned against extrapolating too much from these state races to national elections, noting that Modi still commands a loyal following in many quarters.

He is seen as a champion of a bigger, stronger India, whose economy is now sixth-largest in the world. (A decade ago, it was not even in the top 10.) He also remains a compelling orator, able to stir crowds with his booming baritone voice. Modi rose to power by embracing Hindu nationalist politics, and his base remains firmly behind him because they see him as a protector of their values.

Most experts say that if the next election were purely a popularity contest between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Indian National Congress and scion of a long political dynasty, it would be Modi’s to lose.

But Indian elections do not work that way. The country is a parliamentary system, and local issues affect the national bottom line. Political alliances are crucial, and this could be a problem for Modi.

Most analysts expect Modi’s party to lose many seats next year; the question is whether he will be able to win a thin majority in Parliament.

On Tuesday, the Indian National Congress was on track to pick up more than 100 of the 678 total seats across the five states.

And something even bigger may be happening. Across India, economic worries are becoming a pressing issue that Modi will have trouble sweeping away. He raised high expectations, promising to attract huge China-style export factories and create millions of high-paying jobs.

India’s annual growth rate has been over 7 percent, but Modi has not turned India into the next China. The amount of red tape in India remains stultifying, and many parts of the country’s manufacturing sector, such as textiles, have suffered widespread layoffs.

Millions of farmers are on the brink of crisis, facing rising fertilizer and electricity costs and <a href=”https://www.economist.com/asia/2018/07/12/indias-government-claims-to-subsidise-farmers-but-actually-hurts-them” rel=”nofollow”>l</a>ower prices for their produce. Experts say their distress is driven by too much competition, strict export rules and inadequate government purchases. One farmer who said he received less than the equivalent of $20 for 1,600 pounds of onions sent the money to Modi to make a point.

“Modi will definitely be hurt in the parliamentary elections next year — even more so if the opposition can sharpen the focus of the campaign to stress farm distress,” said Arati Jerath, a columnist who writes about politics for some of India’s biggest newspapers.

Other sources of discontent are a new tax system put in place under Modi and his decision in 2016 to suddenly replace most of the country’s currency, which was supposed to crack down on money laundering but led to severe cash shortages.

Even so, Tuesday’s election results were not all good news for the Indian National Congress. Once a powerful brand in the northeast, the party lost its majority in the last state it controlled in that region, Mizoram.

But the results in India’s agrarian, Hindi-speaking cow belt, where the BJP has dominated or been highly competitive for the past decade and a half, must have been even more deflating to Modi and his team.

His party’s headquarters in New Delhi appeared deserted Tuesday, while wild celebrations broke out at those of the Indian National Congress.

Even Modi’s usually superconfident allies admitted to being concerned.

“This has been a very intriguing election,” said Seshadri Chari, a member of the BJP’s national executive committee. “Modi is going to be personally worried.”

c.2018 New York Times News Service

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