Ranjani Kumari, a retired schoolteacher in the town of Madhubani in the poor farming state of Bihar, pauses as she recalls the hopeful days of May 2014. National parliamentary elections were taking place, and the mood in Bihar, and all of India, was very favorable for Narendra Modi, who was running for the country’s top job, Prime Minister. “People voted with a lot of enthusiasm [for Modi],” says Kumari, who also cast her ballot for Modi.
It showed: Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigned on a platform of change—instituting economic reforms, tackling corruption—and won going away. The BJP secured the biggest majority of any political party in the lower house of Parliament in 30 years, and overnight Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state, became the national leader of 1.3 billion people. In Kumari’s state, the BJP and its allies took 31 of the 40 parliamentary seats up for grabs. “Vikas,” says Kumari, using the Hindi word for development, when asked why Bihar, one of India’s poorest provinces, overwhelmingly supported Modi.
Not anymore. From mid-October to early November, in staggered voting, Bihar went to the polls again, this time for the state assembly. While Modi, 65, was not on the ballot, he may as well have been, crisscrossing Bihar for the BJP. The gamble backfired: more than two-thirds of the seats went to an anti-BJP alliance led by the incumbent chief minister, Nitish Kumar, widely respected for his efforts to improve the lives of ordinary Biharis. (In Madhubani, Kumari was among the voters who switched sides to cast their ballot against the BJP.) The outcome “diminished the authority and the appeal of the Modi government,” says Shaibal Gupta, who runs the Asian Development Research Institute in Bihar’s capital, Patna.
Bihar may yet turn out to be more political speed bump than brick wall. Modi still enjoys a rapidly growing economy, personal popularity and international prominence. But if he can’t master the granular work of Indian politics, focus more relentlessly on his promised reforms or rein in the more extreme members of his BJP—who in recent months have fanned concerns about Hindu nationalism—Modi will never become the transformative figure he promised to be.
For a long while after his May 2014 victory, Modi’s appeal, and the authority that flowed from his personal popularity among voters in the world’s biggest democracy, was unquestionable. His pledges to untangle red tape and open up India for business endeared him to millions pining for their country to finally realize its economic potential, as well as to overseas governments and investors, drawing the spotlight away from the BJP’s Hindu nationalist roots. Soon after taking office, Modi embarked on a series of triumphant international tours. He set out for one right after the Bihar loss, beginning with a rally at London’s iconic Wembley Stadium that drew tens of thousands of British Indians. On Nov. 30, he met with U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the Paris climate summit—their sixth meeting in 14 months. “The whole world is, once again, excited and enthusiastic about India and the opportunities that India represents,” Modi told TIME in May when he marked his first year in office.
The raw numbers partly back up Modi’s optimism. From July to September, India’s economy expanded by 7.4%, up from 7% in the previous three-month period. Falling oil prices have also been a boon for India, one of the world’s top crude importers, helping keep a lid on inflation and taking the heat off government finances. India is now the fastest-growing big economy in the world, speeding past a slowing China.
But whether India can retain that title and grow sustainably in coming years will depend on the government’s ability to carry out the structural reforms that were anticipated when Modi came to power. And that’s where the Prime Minister’s critics say he has fallen short. Facing political opposition in Parliament, Modi has been forced to abandon plans to simplify India’s land-acquisition laws to boost investment, while an effort to replace a prohibitive system of state and local levies with a national goods-and-services tax faces delays. In both cases, Modi has been stymied by the BJP’s weakness in India’s indirectly elected upper house of Parliament, whose backing is needed to turn his proposals into law, and whose members are chosen by state legislatures such as the one in Bihar—not by the voters who cast their ballot for Modi and his party a year and a half ago. Other than a pact with the opposition, winning state elections is the only way for the BJP to raise its parliamentary tally and push through its legislative agenda.
Modi’s supporters say that, above all, he has brought about a change in the economic mood compared with the gloom that had settled over India in the final years of the previous Congress Party–led government. But he needs to do more, and some investors are running low on patience. “Like a lot of other people, I bought [into the Indian market] because of Mr. Modi,” says Jim Rogers, the renowned American investor and Wall Street veteran who sold his Indian investments earlier this year amid concern at the pace of reform. “Either he doesn’t know what needs to be done, or he cannot get it done.”
Though Modi’s BJP had been stung by defeat in a previous state election in Delhi in February, the stakes then were much lower. Roughly 13 million people were eligible to vote in Delhi, compared with nearly 67 million in Bihar—about the population of France. The result has political implications for Modi’s agenda.“The message that Modi and [his] office have been sending is that this is a multiterm government and that this is aligned with their economic agenda,” says Milan Vaishnav, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “When you have 10 years or 15 years in office, you can afford perhaps, in their calculation, to take such an approach. Now it looks like [Modi] is not as invincible politically.”
at a moment when Modi should be focusing on those reforms, he’s getting tripped up by his own party. The BJP’s critics say it is at best ignoring, at worst encouraging, a growing climate of intolerance and rising Hindu chauvinism. India has a long and bloody history of sectarian tensions, particularly between majority Hindus and minority Muslims, who make up about 14% of the population—some 170 million people. Votes from Muslims have been an important pillar of support for the opposition Congress Party, which the BJP unseated in 2014. Modi’s BJP is closely linked to hard-line groups that propagate “Hindutva”—an ideology whose promoters view India as a Hindu nation—making minorities and liberals nervous. “Pluralism and religious harmony in India is always a fragile, hard-won thing,” says historian and author Ramachandra Guha.
In August unidentified assailants killed a prominent critic of superstition and idol worship, practices common among Hindus. The following month, a Muslim man in northern India was lynched by a mob that mistakenly thought he was storing beef. (Many Hindus consider cows to be sacred, and statute books in numerous Indian states have laws banning the slaughter of cows.) Modi faced criticism for being slow to respond to the atrocity, which was the first of at least four mob attacks in recent months linked to cow slaughter, smuggling and theft. When he did address the killing in an interview with a Bengali-language newspaper published on Oct. 14, he said it was “unfortunate” but said the federal government could not be held responsible. Referring to the lynching and a protest by right-wing Hindus that forced a Pakistani singer to call off a planned concert in Mumbai, Modi said, “These issues are related to law and order and are the concern of the state governments,” according to a translation by the Indian ANI news agency.
Yet some of Modi’s own BJP colleagues have made incendiary comments. A few weeks after the lynching, the BJP chief minister of the northern state of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, was quoted by the local Indian Express newspaper as saying that “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef” because “the cow is an article of faith here.” (Khattar later said his remarks had been “misconstrued and twisted.”)
Modi, too, engaged in apparently divisive sectarian rhetoric during the Bihar campaign when he attacked the opposition alliance by saying it planned to reappropriate certain benefits reserved for members of lower Hindu castes and transfer them to “another community”—widely read as a reference to Muslims. The Indian leader introduced the issue “deliberately to make Hindus nervous,” says Guha, with Modi’s divisive tactics stoking “the fears and insecurities” of the country’s Muslims.
Jayant Sinha, India’s junior Finance Minister and a high-ranking member of the BJP, denies that his party sought to polarize voters in Bihar. He puts the loss down to “caste arithmetic,” with the opposition succeeding in appealing to different groups of voters in a region where communities still organize themselves based on the hierarchies of the Hindu caste system. The BJP’s central message, Sinha insists, was good governance and development. “In the media narrative, 98% [of what the party talked about] is set aside and not even the 2%, maybe it’s the 0.1% that is considered to be more controversial that is picked up,” he says.
Sinha also rejects the suggestion that India has grown more intolerant since the BJP came to power, a charge made by numerous writers who, in recent months, have returned their national awards. “People are welcome to protest. They are welcome to express themselves,” says Sinha. “But please be assured your fundamental, your constitutional rights are protected by the full force of the government, the full force of the law and by the judicial system.”
Not all are assured. An October report by the research arm of the financial-services firm Moody’s warned that Modi risks “losing domestic and international credibility” unless he keeps his party in check. Vaishnav says that worries about Hindu nationalism are “beginning to filter into conversations that governments and investors are having abroad. It’s become a talking point.” With concern growing, Modi, says Vaishnav, “is going to have to find a way” to rein in the hard-line elements among his supporters.”
Although he has been wounded by the defeat in Bihar, the Prime Minister still has time to turn things around. With more than three years left in office before he faces re-election, Modi, say analysts, could regain the initiative by putting an end to right-wing distractions and focusing on the economic hopes that swept him to New Delhi in the first place. “The need is to really reform the economy,” says Mohan Guruswamy, an economic commentator and former Finance Ministry official, who notes the importance of winning Parliament’s backing for the government’s proposals. “The first thing is to get the parliamentary system going again. For that, you need to conciliate with the opposition, not treat them as pariahs.”
Early signs in the aftermath of the Bihar elections suggest the government is, belatedly, beginning to move in that direction. To build bridges with the other side, Modi held talks over the proposed tax law on Nov. 27 with Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and former Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It was his first such meeting with Gandhi since taking power, and it followed the announcement of a series of steps in the wake of the Bihar defeat to ease the flow of foreign capital in sectors such as broadcasting and defense.
Modi also needs to rethink his priorities. Attending dozens of rallies during the Bihar campaign was hardly the best use of the Prime Minister’s time and succeeded only in making a political defeat personal. But problems had been mounting well before the election. “If the government in Delhi had been performing swimmingly … then this defeat [in Bihar] wouldn’t have mattered that much,” says Ashok Malik, a columnist and senior fellow at the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank. “This defeat has come after a period of severe doubt.”
The doubt was evident in Madhubani, where farmer Praveen Kumar, 40, emphasized how important it was for the Prime Minister to “return to doing the job” he promised to do in 2014. Sipping his morning tea, Kumar said he too had voted for Modi in last year’s national elections, a decision he stands by for now. But he cast his ballot against the BJP in the local polls. “Modi,” said Kumar,“should stay in Delhi and work there.”