Waiting for Prosperity: Narendra Modi’s Reality Check


Columnist Gautam Hathi comments on the recent election losses faced by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, received a raucous welcome from the Indian community in Britain at London’s Wembley Stadium on Friday night. Sixty­ thousand people in the arena treated Modi like a rock star during his speech. The warm reception must have been a much­ appreciated change from the frigid rebuke that Modi got last week in Bihar, India’s third most populous state.

After winning India’s federal elections last year with the largest mandate in recent history, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was hoping to do well in Bihar’s state elections this month. The Prime Minister spent a great deal of his own time campaigning in Bihar, and made himself the poster child of the BJP’s campaign. And yet, after a month­ long election process, the final results announced on November 8 were a bitter blow to Modi. His main opponents won close to 75 percent of the seats in the Legislative Assembly, and the BJP lost close to half its seats.

Clearly, Modi’s charisma and personality, highly effective in last year’s elections (and in drawing crowds during foreign visits), failed to make a dent in one of India’s poorest and least developed states. For years, Bihar has been struggling to move beyond deeply set economic, political, and social issues that have made the state lag behind across a wide range of indicators. Although Modi made a slew of economic promises before and after winning the federal election last year, his impact on states like Bihar has been limited.

This is not to say that there hasn’t been any progress at all. Modi’s government has opened bank accounts for the vast majority of Indian families, for example. There has also been some progress in cutting red tape and improving the economy (although a good part of the economic progress can be attributed to record low oil prices that have lowered costs across the country). In general, however, Modi’s government has been cautious (some would say timid) in its attempts to bring jobs, investment, and stability to India. Voters may have noticed that Modi has not yet come close to bringing the widespread transformation of India that he, perhaps unrealistically, seemed to promise.

As a result, Modi has resorted to rather ugly tactics to gain support, perhaps hoping to make up for the lack of immediately visible economic progress. The BJP has had a long history of right­-wing Hindu extremism, and while Modi assured both India and the world that he was a committed pluralist when campaigning last year, he has slid back towards the politics of division. In the run­up to the Bihar elections, he stayed silent as his political lieutenants tried to gin up sectarian and caste divisions. The BJP maintained a worrying silence as Muslims in Bihar were killed after rumors emerged that they had eaten beef. More broadly, Modi has made life difficult for his critics across the country, using laws and regulations to shut down non-­governmental organizations and opposition activists.

And yet, all of these underhanded moves have not saved Modi and the BJP from electoral defeat. Indeed, some say that they may have backfired. Hopefully, Narendra Modi will realize that prosperity for India is the surest way to build support. If he focuses his (reportedly inexhaustible) energy on implementing the economic promises which he has made, and gets past some of the economic timidity that has restricted his free­ market reforms so far, then perhaps in a few years he will have something tangible to show voters rather than just a tired script of divisive sectarianism.

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