Wednesday 19 June 2019

Modi's nationalist appeal fading across India

Slipping: Hindhu nationalist Narendra Modi is losing support to opposition leader Rahul Gandhi. Photo: AP
Slipping: Hindhu nationalist Narendra Modi is losing support to opposition leader Rahul Gandhi. Photo: AP

Mary Fitzgerald

When the proud son of a tea seller swept India's 2014 general election with the slogan "Achhe din (good days) are coming" following a campaign that tapped into Hindu nationalist sentiment, there were high expectations but also more that a little trepidation.

More than four years later, Narendra Modi struggles to manage expectations as prime minister while plotting a strategy for re-election in a ballot due to take place in May.

He and his centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are facing criticism - and protests - as disillusionment grows over the disconnect between what they promised to the world's largest democracy and what they have delivered.

An unashamed populist who came to power two years before Donald Trump entered the White House, Modi's "India First" rhetoric and his strident Hindu nationalist platforming has drawn comparison with the US president's tactics.

Just like white supremacists have felt emboldened in Trump's America, so too have hardline Hindu nationalists grown empowered in Modi's India, stirring fears among the country's religious minorities, including its 170 million Muslims.

Back in 2014, Modi, while courting the Hindu hardliners, garnered support beyond those circles by portraying himself as a champion of economic development that would benefit many, not the few, at the same time as tackling corruption. His government pushed forward with a national goods and services tax, currency reform and a campaign to boost India's rating on the World Bank's ease of doing business ranking.

Modi's confidence grew as the BJP expanded its control over a record 20 out of the country's 29 state legislatures.

But a dip in fortunes has checked some of that brashness. Regional electoral defeats - particularly in three large Indian states - have prompted speculation that re-election this year may not be as easy as Modi's loyalists believed. "Achhe din" is now regularly mocked in India, as is the man who made the slogan his trademark.

Much will depend on sentiment in rural India, where two-thirds of the population live. Farmers are suffering in a country where agriculture is the biggest employer. Almost 55pc of workers either directly or indirectly make their living from the land.

Rural wages have been plummeting and farmers have been unable to get sustainable prices. They have taken to the streets in huge numbers in recent weeks to protest and as a critical voting bloc, the massive demonstrations are bad news for Modi five months before a re-election bid.

In India's sprawling cities, those disappointed by Modi include younger voters who had hoped his pledge to create tens of millions of jobs would have by now transformed into something tangible. Instead youth unemployment is growing.

Traders, another key constituency, are not happy because of sluggish economic progress and Modi's demonetisation move. Meanwhile, those within the political mainstream who voted for Modi and his BJP because they wanted change are increasingly worried about its reliance on Hindu nationalist rhetoric which is feeding religious polarisation.

"More damage has been done to India by this government than any in the past," Rahul Gandhi, Modi's main opponent, said last summer, referring to the BJP's Hindu nationalist agenda. The emergence of so-called cow vigilantes - Hindu hardliners who target non-Hindus, particularly Muslims, on allegations of eating and selling beef - has caused disquiet.

A much-publicised recent case in Uttar Pradesh - India's most populous state, governed by the BJP through a Hindu priest they appointed chief minister - involved the killing of a police officer by a mob protesting the death of a number of cattle.

A well-known actor, Naseeruddin Shah, said he worries for his children, adding that a "poison" has spread in Indian society. "It will be very difficult to capture this djinn [genie] back into the bottle."

There is concern the BJP will try to galvanise India's majority Hindu voters ahead of the May election by resorting to appeals to religious sentiment. While recent opinion polls have shown Modi slipping and Gandhi on the rise, the prime minister remains India's most popular politician.

Irish Independent

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