Indians keep faith in messianic Modi despite dire coronavirus record

PM’s image undamaged as Bharatiya Janata party proves adept at deflecting blame

‘Every demagogue convinces the masses that he is God Almighty himself.’ Above, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi. Photograph: Handout/PIB/AFP via Getty

Vipul Mishra's life has been upended. Days into India's coronavirus lockdown, the 34-year-old software engineer was made redundant from a travel website based near New Delhi. Unable to pay his rent, Mishra now plans to return with his wife and baby to his hometown of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh.

But neither Mishra's hardships – nor the recent deaths of 20 Indian soldiers in a border clash with China – has eroded his confidence in the leadership of Narendra Modi.

"Modi is fearless, he is not greedy and he doesn't work for personal gain," he said of the Indian prime minister. "He has his ear to the ground. He knows and understands people. India cannot have a better prime minister."

Such faith runs deep. India’s lockdown – imposed with just four hours’ notice – battered an already struggling economy, triggered a humanitarian crisis and failed to stop the deadly pathogen from spreading rapidly.


India now has the world's third-highest coronavirus burden after the US and Brazil, with more than 700,000 confirmed cases.

Yet Modi's popularity remains undiminished. According to Morning Consult, a US-based pollster, 74 per cent of Indians approved of Modi's leadership as of June 30th – far higher than any other leading democratic world leader. By comparison, approval ratings for UK prime minister Boris Johnson have slipped cent to 46 per cent, while US president Donald Trump's numbers languish at 39 per cent.

"In this cult of national worship, Modi is seen as the national messiah who will take us back to national greatness"

Analysts say Indians' unshakeable confidence in Modi reflects his almost messianic image as a leader who is seen as eschewing family and personal enrichment to devote himself to public service. They add that he has benefited from an ineffectual opposition, led by Congress's Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, and the deference of financially vulnerable media outlets, whose dependence on government advertising revenues tempers critical coverage.

In a febrile climate of nationalistic fervour, Modi's disruptive policy measures – such as his 2016 cash ban and the coronavirus lockdown – have been applauded as evidence of his resolve to tackle national problems.

“In this cult of national worship, Modi is seen as the national messiah who will take us back to national greatness,” says Asim Ali, of the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank. “The media has also tried to paint Modi in a good light and cover up the fallout of the bad decisions. And there is a population willing to believe it.”

Religious fervour

Gilles Vernier, a political science professor at Ashoka University, said Modi's ability to inspire an almost religious fervour among his supporters had "freed him from conventional accountability models" so the impact of his policies mattered little.

“People believe the prime minister means well. They trust him to take strong and courageous decisions, and they don’t hold him responsible for the actual consequences,” said Prof Verniers.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party – with its vast and sophisticated social media army – has also proved adept at deflecting blame. India’s failures have been pinned on state governments and Indians themselves, especially the marginalised Muslim minority, after Islamic proselytisers were found to be spreading the virus early in the lockdown.

“From the very beginning, the position was to transfer the onus of responsibility for the transmission of the disease to people’s behaviour,” said Prof Verniers.

In his six years as prime minister, he has not granted any unscripted interviews or held a single press conference

Since the deadly border clash with Chinese troops in the Himalayas last month, the BJP has tried to shift public focus towards the previous Congress party government's relations with Beijing.

Modi has also sought to keep himself above the fray of political debate. In his six years as prime minister, he has not granted any unscripted interviews or held a single press conference.

After last year’s election delivered a thumping new majority, he spent a day meditating in a remote Himalayan cave – a move that helped reinforce his image as a semi-divine Hindu holy man.

“He went to the cave to project himself as Lord Shiva incarnate,” said a political pollster, who requested anonymity. “Every demagogue convinces the masses that he is God Almighty himself. In north India it was common to hear people say, ‘Modi has come to dispel the forces of evil and darkness and inject light into India’.”

Erratic policymaking

But the pandemic and border crisis have cast shadows over Modi’s determined mythmaking.

Some in the business community have expressed their exasperation with erratic policymaking, poor planning and the absence of a strategic vision. Rajiv Bajaj, managing director of Bajaj Auto, one of the country's biggest motorcycle manufacturers, says India's lockdown has "flattened the wrong curve – it's not the infection curve; it's the GDP curve", in an online video discussion with Rahul Gandhi.

Many vulnerable migrants – left stranded for months without work, incomes or transport home – have also felt angry and abandoned.

Modi's political position appears unassailable, given the lack of any credible rival

“Modi has no idea how the poor of this country are suffering,” says Arun Kumar (44), a Delhi-based day labourer who struggled for weeks to get home to his village in Himachal Pradesh after the lockdown left him with no income. “Whether the poor lives or dies, he does not care. He just wants to show off his power.”

Yet Modi’s political position appears unassailable, given the lack of any credible rival, says Milan Vaishnav, author of several books on Indian politics. “Even if there are shortcomings to Modi’s approach, it’s a bit of the ‘There is no alternative’ factor.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020