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Modi Gambled by Turning State Elections Into a Referendum on His Leadership. He Won Big Time

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Big seems too small a word to describe the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Spread over an area roughly the size of Britain, UP is home to about 220 million people — more than the populations of Germany, France and Italy together. With scale comes political heft. Nine out of India’s 15 Prime Ministers arrived in New Delhi via UP (including the incumbent, Narendra Modi, whose parliamentary constituency is in UP), and the state sends 80 members to the powerful lower house of the national Parliament — way more than any other Indian state. UP is nothing less than the political engine room of the world’s biggest democracy.

That is why when UP began voting in state polls last month, just over halfway through Modi’s term, all India sat up and paid attention. So did many outsiders, given India’s growing influence on the world stage.

Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept UP in the 2014 general elections, when he became India’s leader, capturing all but nine of UP’s parliamentary seats. But could the Modi magic that propelled the BJP to the biggest national victory for any party in 30 years still sway voters? Or was India tiring of the Prime Minister constantly sloganeering about economic development when the nation of 1.3 billion people struggles to produce enough jobs for its youth?

Economists have also raised doubts about Modi’s competence as a policymaker, following a surprise decision in November to scrap high-value currency notes that sparked pain across India’s cash-based economy. The government’s justification for the measure was as confused as its execution, with a shortage of replacement notes triggering long queues at banks and ATMs. At various times, the move was billed either as a crusade against “black money” — illicit, untaxed wealth — that would force the rich to declare hoards of dirty cash, or as a way to spur India’s digital transformation by weaning it off its dependence on paper currency. Growth suffered. The latest International Monetary Fund forecasts point to a 6.6% expansion this year, down one percentage point and placing India behind China, thanks largely to Modi’s move.

Yet the BJP made him the face of what was a contest to choose a regional government, transforming UP into a referendum on his leadership. “Modi is their most effective campaigner,” says Sanjay Kumar, a psephologist and director of Delhi-based think tank the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “They made him central to this election, which to some looked risky at the time.”

The gambit paid off — and how. On the day before the final round of voting on March 8, questions about Modi’s achievements cut little ice with Virender Prasad, who sells Hindu idols in Modi’s eastern UP constituency of Varanasi. One of Hinduism’s most sacred places, Modi picked this ancient city as his springboard when he ran for Prime Minister in 2014. Prasad has been a fan ever since. “It is easy to criticize him. But how much can he do in three years?” As tourists and Hindu pilgrims streamed past his shop near the banks of the holy river Ganges, Prasad didn’t want to talk about Modi’s achievements. For him, for now, the issue was Modi’s intention. “At least he is trying to do something for the country. Who else is there?”

Prasad wasn’t the only one to keep his faith. Results of the monthlong poll on March 11 showed an unexpected landslide for the BJP, which won its biggest majority ever in the mammoth state — and the biggest for any party since the 1980s. “No one anticipated this scale of victory,” says Kumar. UP’s voters had tuned out the doubters; for them, what mattered was “the image of Modi and huge expectations that this is the man who will deliver,” says Kumar.

It was a stunning rerun of 2014, with a twist. That year, as growth slowed and the ruling Congress Party–led government got bogged down in a series of headline-grabbing corruption scandals, middle-class voters hungry for change looked to Modi as an energetic, can-do leader who would finally unlock India’s potential by reforming its creaking economic architecture. Three years on, as analysts grumble about his record of reforms and the cash ban hits some of India’s poorest citizens, Modi has recast himself as a populist moral crusader taking on the country’s wealthy elites. In a country with yawning income inequalities and a history of corruption by those at the top, Modi is presented as a messiah for the forgotten poor. And what of the fallout from the cash ban? Nothing more than a short-term side effect.

“The government narrative that the [ban] was aimed at rich people with black money won over many voters even if they had suffered because of the ban,” says Bhanu Joshi of the Centre for Policy Research, another Delhi-based think tank, who traveled across UP as it went to the polls. “Modi was seen as someone who was standing up for the poor.”

“Across UP, the language was never about the BJP,” he adds. “It was about Modi. And perhaps we underestimated the impact of the Modi brand since 2014. Clearly, it hasn’t gone away.”

That is bad news for the opposition Congress Party, once seen as the natural party of government in New Delhi, now flailing about under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of former Indian Prime Ministers. In UP, it joined forces with a local party that had been in power in the state since 2012, hoping for a repeat of the result in Bihar state in 2015, when the BJP was trounced by a coalition of regional satraps. Then, Congress played a bit part in the Bihar coalition as a junior partner.

This time, the alliance failed, as Modi’s appeal helped the BJP cut across UP’s fiendishly complex patchwork of Hindu caste and community allegiances. (Congress also fared badly in a clutch of other state election results on March 11. A victory in the western state of Punjab brought some cheer, but at the national level, that still leaves the party trailing far behind the BJP, which also won UP’s neighboring Uttarakhand state.)

For more than a decade now, UP has been ruled by local parties that succeeded by mobilizing different Hindu caste groups, along with members of its roughly 40 million strong Muslim community. Modi’s personal popularity gave the BJP a much broader appeal. Says Joshi: “Modi as a brand — aspirational and seen by voters as sincere — was very clear. The opposition did not have a competing brand that was as strong.”

Modi wasn’t the only factor. The BJP, which has its roots in India’s Hindu right-wing movement and did not field a single Muslim candidate in UP, also pushed the divisive message that the other parties favored Muslims over Hindu voters. At one public rally, according to a translation of his speech offered by the Indian Express newspaper, the Prime Minister said that “if there is electricity during [the Islamic fasting month of] Ramadan, it should be there on [the Hindu festival of] Diwali as well.”

Explains Kumar: “They suggested that the Hindus were at the receiving end of the polices [of the other parties].” Though not the dominant narrative, such rhetoric “worked in favor of the BJP.”

Nalin Kohli, a BJP spokesman, rejects the charge that the party tried to divide voters along religious lines: “Our message and agenda was and is the same as 2014, which is development for all, regardless of caste and religion. This result establishes support for our agenda and the credibility of Narendra Modi as a leader. This is the message from the voters of India.”

The outcome puts Modi in a strong position to win re-election in 2019, so much so that one of the BJP’s regional opponents was moved to tweet: “In a nutshell there is no leader today with a pan-India acceptability who can take on Modi & BJP in 2019. At this rate we might as well forget 2019 and start planning/hoping for 2024.”

Despite his rhetoric, Modi’s 2014 victory did not herald the kind of sweeping economic reforms needed to make the country better at producing jobs for the roughly 12 million Indians who enter the workforce every year. There has been progress, including the approval of a new tax law that aims to sweep aside India’s byzantine system of state and local taxes with a simple, more commerce-friendly alternative. But India remains a notoriously tough place to do business. Seeking to enforce a contract in India’s commercial capital Mumbai? Clear your calendar: it takes an average of nearly four years, according to the World Bank.

Now, as the cash ban hits the country’s growth rate, the BJP’s overwhelming victory once again turns the spotlight on Modi and his promises — and when he will deliver. “Eventually, there has to be more than the image of the good guy and the guy who has sincere intentions,” says Joshi.

“This was not a vote for or against one policy. This was a vote for Modi. And such a huge majority brings huge expectations,” adds Kumar, the Delhi-based psephologist. “It actually poses a different kind of challenge for the BJP. People expect the government to deliver. There are no more excuses.”

Correction: The original version of this article misstated when the Bihar state elections took place. They were held in 2015.

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