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Business News/ News / India/  What Modi Has Figured Out That Trump Never Has

What Modi Has Figured Out That Trump Never Has

India’s prime minister remains so popular in part because he’s spending less time on riling up his base than co-opting other parts of the electorate. 

What Modi Has Figured Out That Trump Never HasPremium
What Modi Has Figured Out That Trump Never Has

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Excitement and uncertainty used to accompany general elections in India. Polls swung back and forth, coalitions formed and reformed, analysts dissected policy platforms and assessed the prospects of hundreds of individual candidates. Today, with India embarked on its 18th general election campaign, there is no electricity in the air. It is hard to find anyone who believes Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lose his bid for a third term in office.

Modi can make a case for being the world’s most popular political leader. Opinion polls suggest three out of four Indians approve of his performance; perhaps only Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador boasts comparable ratings. Elsewhere, populist strongmen such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have been voted out or, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, faced close electoral calls. By contrast, Modi can look forward to India’s once-competitive elections with confidence.

How has Modi maintained his political dominance after a decade in power? Some ingredients of his success are depressingly illiberal — and familiar. As in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, the ruling establishment has methodically delegitimized or rendered irrelevant criticism from academia, civil society, and the media. And, as in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, opposition politicians have been starved of financial support, subjected to regular and questionable investigations, and given no space to regroup. India’s elections are still free, but they may no longer be completely fair.

Still, while such tactics tilt the political playing field in favor of the incumbent, they don’t guarantee victory in a country as large and varied as India. (Even with Modi at the helm, remember, his Bharatiya Janata Party has never won more than 40% of the national vote.) Modi’s real secret is this: Unlike almost all other strongman leaders, including Donald Trump, and in contrast to the BJP itself, he now focuses less on stoking his base’s resentments than co-opting other elements of the electorate.

Trump and his authoritarian peers are convinced their success comes from magnifying and exploiting divisions in their societies. That might make sense in countries where the smallest differences in enthusiasm in a leader’s base can win or lose an election.

India, however, is a high-turnout society; 67% of the electorate voted in the last general election. Modi, in particular, is so confident his core supporters will vote that he now invests more political capital in trying to persuade others that he is really an apolitical figure.

For many Indians, even those who may not vote for the BJP, their prime minister is now one part king, one part high priest, and one part Mister Rogers. Modi delivers avuncular warnings against studying too hard for examinations and is constantly photographed meditating in the Himalayas or officiating at temples. His face is everywhere in our cities and towns, especially at any place Indians might interact with the machinery of the welfare state — even on our vaccine certificates during the pandemic.

This makes him impossible to run against. Criticism about political stances or policy decisions simply doesn’t stick to someone who refuses to be bound by such mundane considerations. Modi presents himself as more welfarist than those to his left, more nationalist than those to his right, and more globalist than the liberal center.

The prime minister is a master at selling such political contradictions. One day he will say Indians need to rise above caste-based mobilization, hoping to appeal to upper-caste voters tired of identity politics. The next day his party will promise individual caste groups the recognition and concessions that they want. Voters appear undisturbed by the inconsistencies.

Opposition politicians are left disarmed and outmaneuvered. Every single possible narrative — the economy, national security, climate change, jobs, corruption, public services — has already been colonized by the incumbent, leaving them no line of attack.

Modi’s dominance hasn’t been achieved overnight, or easily. He and the BJP have worked at it 24-7, year after year. They fight every election, even the ones they are going to win, as if a loss would be catastrophic. (That helps explain why even apparently inconsequential opposition politicians are wooed and bullied in turn.) In the months between elections, the party’s high command constantly prunes and perfects narratives with specific voting groups in mind. Their outreach factory is continually given new policy proposals, slogans or controversies to keep voters occupied.

Modi certainly bears his share of blame for the erosion of India’s liberal institutions. Yet he remains unabashedly enthusiastic about Indian electoral politics. Given that this election has largely failed to stir Indians’ imaginations, I wonder if the person most excited about them may be Modi himself.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy."

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Published: 18 Mar 2024, 04:42 AM IST
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