Mixed verdict on Narendra Modi as India prepares to vote

Month-long poll involving 900m eligible voters to deliver judgment on divisive PM

Under the shadow of Jodhpur’s imposing Mehrangarh Fort, the Pokar Sweet Home is famous for its traditional Indian snacks: thick creamy lassis, batter-fried stuffed chilli peppers and chickpea flour dumplings.

But these days, the food shop founded 80 years ago has a new stream of thoroughly modern visitors: young men – clad in the bright red and orange T-shirts of rival foreign-backed food delivery services Zomato and Swiggy – collecting orders placed online by customers across the city.

Om Prakash Bhati, the 51-year-old son of Pokar's late founder, says the recent launch of Zomato, Swiggy and Uber Eats in Jodhpur has boosted his sales dramatically, after a turbulent period when his business was hit by a draconian 2016 cash ban and a complicated overhaul of India's tax system.

“People who would never come here because of parking issues, they just order online,” says Bhati, sitting under a tree and constantly checking the large tablet where the orders from Zomato and Swiggy ping in.


But if united by food, Pokar's owner and the young couriers who deliver his delicacies differ sharply when it comes to their assessment of prime minister Narendra Modi, now seeking a second term in a general election contest whose weeks-long voting process starts on Thursday.

Bhati, who voted for Modi in 2014, is bitterly disappointed with what has happened over the past five years. He believes that despite official figures India's economy slowed sharply due to the premier's missteps while promised jobs and investments have not materialised. "Modi raised expectation that he was going to transform the country," he says. "But India has gone backwards under him. He is lying about the GDP numbers. People who have done MBAs are working as waiters."

The Zomato and Swiggy delivery boys, however, brim with enthusiasm for Modi, especially his recent authorisation of a missile strike on an alleged terrorist training camp in neighbouring Pakistan. Their excitement is mirrored by Akshay Bhati (25), whose father supplies milk to the shop.

“The power of the nation has gone up,” the younger Bhati says. “Before, any enemy country would come and attack India and just get away with it – India would not do anything. Now, we will enter your house and kill you.”

900m voters

The divergent views among the evening crowd at Pokar’s reflects the deep faultlines among India’s 900m eligible voters, as they gear up for what has become an unusually personality-driven general election contest. The voting will serve as a national assessment of how well the charismatic populist Modi has lived up to the high expectations he raised of a “New India”, when he took power in 2014 after 10 years of disappointing rule by the Congress party.

Known for his decisiveness, risk-taking and his highly-personalised operating style, Modi has dominated India's political landscape like no other leader since Indira Gandhi, who is still remembered for her own strong, authoritarian streak. He has mesmerised the public with a vision of an India which enjoys a modern, developed economy, an efficient honest government and global stature, while remaining rooted in the traditional values and social mores of its Hindu majority.

The premier’s Bharatiya Janata party, with its deep pockets and sophisticated political machinery, is urging India’s voters to give Modi another five years in power to continue his efforts to remake India.

Fragmented opposition parties – including the BJP's arch-rival Congress, led by Rahul Gandhi, and a diverse array of smaller regional parties – are trying to counter by accusing Modi of failing to live up to expectations, and inflicting unnecessary misery on the population, while simultaneously taking potshots at one another. Results will be known only on May 23rd, as voting is spread over six weeks.

“It is undoubtedly a referendum on Mr Modi,” says Ashutosh Varshney, director of the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown University, of the contest. “It’s a very presidential style election.”

Modi swept to power in New Delhi in 2014, pledging to bring acche din, or good times, for India, with accelerated economic growth and millions of new jobs. But his record of delivery on these promises is highly contentious.

The prime minister insists India’s economy has grown faster under his leadership than ever before, with an average annual GDP growth of 7.3 per cent, compared with an annual average of 6.7 per cent under the previous Congress-led government. But many economists have questioned the credibility of official data, amid perceptions of unprecedented political interference. Even by New Delhi’s own numbers, India’s GDP growth slowed to 6.6 per cent in the three months ending December 31st, its slowest pace in five quarters.

New Delhi has also suppressed a major report which apparently indicated rising joblessness among youth. In a Pew Research Center survey of 2,521 Indians last summer, 76 per cent cited lack of employment opportunities as a major concern. “The gap between the hype and the promises was clearly wide and clearly visible,” Varshney says.

Squeeze on farmers

Farmers have been squeezed hard as part of the effort to curb once rampant inflation, their anger displayed in a series of large-scale protests. "We are very unhappy", says Lakshman Ram, a 61-year-old farmer at the Jodhpur spice market, where he was selling a mound of fragrant cumin seeds to traders. "He has killed us farmers. He has finished us. I'm just waiting for Congress – they think about us."

Indeed, when rural anger helped Congress unexpectedly win three state elections in former BJP strongholds in December, it suggested that Modi was politically vulnerable and the national polls could be more competitive than expected.

But since the February 14th terrorist attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitaries in the disputed Kashmir region, Modi has deftly turned public attention away from his controversial economic record towards national security.

His approval of an air strike on an alleged Pakistani terror training centre in Balakot on February 26th elated Indians long frustrated with New Delhi's traditional restraint after provocations such as the 2001 attack on parliament and the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

New Delhi’s claim that its missiles killed 300 Pakistani terrorists – which is doubted by western governments – has found a receptive domestic audience, and even been celebrated in a catchy Bollywood-style music video widely circulating on social media.

Overall, the missile strike – whatever its real impact on the ground – has undoubtedly boosted Modi’s popularity, reinforcing his image as a bold and decisive leader. He sought to consolidate this with a national broadcast on March 27th, when he announced that New Delhi had just successfully tested an anti-satellite missile, joining what he called the space “super-league”.

The showdown with Pakistan, and subsequent sharp focus on national security, has had the added bonus of galvanising BJP workers and volunteers.

“National security essentially gives a leader an opportunity to show determination and resolve,” says Varshney. “Now we also have an organisation [the BJP] whose morale has been boosted by Balakot, and which is working even more enthusiastically for a leader who had seemed to be in a fair amount of trouble.”

Personally popular

Even without the Balakot boost, analysts say Modi already had a good shot at a second term, although his support has been eroding somewhat. Pew’s survey last spring found that 55 per cent of Indians were generally satisfied with the country’s direction. Though down sharply from the soaring 70 per cent a year earlier, it still reflected an upbeat attitude. Modi also remains personally popular, with his image of honesty, integrity and hard work still intact.

Talks of a united opposition front between Congress and regional parties to fight Modi also petered out, with Gandhi’s party instead opting to go it alone, ensuring the anti-BJP vote will be divided. That is a major boon to the ruling party, given India’s first-past-the-post parliamentary system.

"It might mean the difference between defeat and victory," says Gilles Verniers, a political science professor at Ashoka University. "Historically, large national parties can only be defeated by a united opposition. Instead, Congress is going to play spoiler in states where the contest is really about the BJP versus strong regional parties. It's going to benefit the BJP enormously."

A few blocks from Pokar's stands a half empty shopping mall with a McDonald's, where the elegantly dressed Renu Khichi, a police officer's wife, is dining with her two teenagers. She admits she was dissatisfied with the economy's trajectory over the past five years – especially Modi's signature cash ban. "The poor suffered, the middle-class suffered and the rich didn't have to worry," she says.

Yet she feels “proud” of the missile strike in Pakistan, saying “if somebody attacks you, you have to respond”. She is forgiving of Modi’s mistakes, confident in his good intentions, and willing to give him a second chance.

"For 70 years, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi didn't do anything so even if he didn't deliver, neither did they," she says. "I feel he should be given another five years, and I'm hopeful he will do something."

Across the city on the top floor of the Ashapurna Mall – which claims to be "where dreams meet reality" but where the anchor tenants are two middle-class clothing brands – Lokesh Anupani, a medical doctor, and his wife, Madhvi, a dentist, watch their three-year-old daughter jumping around a children's play area.

Gandhi dilemma

Anupani says he supports the prime minister, who he sees as hard-working and honest. But he says he also believes that the opposition Congress needs to remove Gandhi – the son, grandson and great-grandson of former Indian prime ministers – if it is ever to be a serious contender for power.

“He is childish,” the young doctor says of Gandhi. “He is not mature enough to handle this country. He is only in politics due to his surname, but he has no ability. I am not opposed to Congress, but if they want to be a good opposition party, or be in government they should promote someone else. Otherwise, Narendra Modi will keep winning.”

Gokul Choudhury is a 37-year-old driver who has a college degree in arts, and feels unhappy with his lot as a driver. When he voted for Modi in 2014, he hoped the prime minister's promised creation of new jobs might help him land a different kind of work. That has not happened. "It's a very bad situation", he says. "There are no jobs."

Yet even if his own personal dreams have not been realised, Choudhury says he will cast a vote for Modi one more time in the upcoming polls – to give the prime minister more time to bring the development he promised.

“There were so many problems left by the last government,” he says. “But I think things will get better.”

But he believes many voters will look past their own difficulties to support a leader now helping India to stand tall on the world stage. “Modi has created this feeling of nationalism, and patriotism”, he says. “It is this feeling, don’t think about yourself and your own interests only. Think about the nation first.”


Undertones of bigotry lie beneath campaign message

On the surface, India’s upcoming general election campaign is focused on issues familiar to any lively democracy: the economy and national security challenges. But beneath the veneer lie strong undertones of religious bigotry.

Modi himself is careful in his public comments, insisting that he works neither for the country’s Hindu majority, nor its Muslim minority. But other senior BJP leaders are stoking Hindus’ deep-seated mistrust of Muslims, while depicting the rival Congress party as “anti-Hindu” and “pro-Muslim”.

Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and one of the BJP's star campaigners in the current contest, has described the Congress as "infected with the virus" of the Muslim League – a reference to the political organisation that pushed for the division of the Indian subcontinent to create a separate Muslim-majority Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule.

In Jodhpur's Clock Tower market, Kishore Changlani, the 35-year-old, third-generation owner of Maharani Spices, is a dedicated BJP volunteer. His grandfather arrived in Jodhpur in 1947 as a Hindu refugee from Sindh province, which became part of Pakistan.

Changlani still harbours resentment over the loss of his family’s wealth in the upheaval, for which he blames both Congress, and Muslims more generally. He supports Modi in part because he believes he is a strong leader.

Repeating a long-standing rightwing canard that Muslims’ high birth rate will tip India’s demographic balance against Hindus, the spice trader says: “Mr Modi can control the population and ensure an equal law for everyone. Otherwise India will also become Pakistan – if Muslims keep having so many babies.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019