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India's favorite Modi cannot rule out election upsets

Karnataka result shows India's popular prime minister must not take voters for granted

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrates the results of Karnataka state election at his Bharatiya Janata Party's headquarters in New Delhi on May15.   © Reuters

As he completes four eventful years as India's prime minister on May 26, Narendra Modi is targeting a second term through victory in general elections to be scheduled in the next 12 months.

Although he starts the race as the overwhelming favorite, the outcome  of the recent regional poll in the state of Karnataka shows that his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cannot take anything for granted.

In a hard-fought election, the BJP won the largest number of seats and claimed victory  in this key southern state far from the party's northern and western strongholds. Lacking an overall majority, it established a minority government, hoping to poach legislators from rival parties. But the opposition Congress and a local party, the Janata Dal (Secular), banded together and the BJP administration collapsed after just three days. Congress and its ally will, after all, rule Karnataka.

Recent trends in state-level elections across India indicate that Modi remains number one in overall national appeal and public approval, but his party is not steamrolling the opposition. The Congress party, as well as a variety of regional parties which hold sway in specific states have dented the BJP's commanding lead (as in Modi's native Gujarat) or upset the BJP's expected expansion through opportunistic coalitions (like in Karnataka).

The current political map of India shows the BJP's "saffron wave" reigning in 21 out of 29 states, accounting for 70% of the country's population, while the Congress governs in barely four states, including Karnataka. Yet, the narrowing of vote margins in state elections and the intentions of the BJP's rivals to field a united front against Modi mean it will not be a cakewalk for him in the national elections.

Modi has no seeming alternative who is prime minister material -- an opinion poll conducted in early 2018 by the magazine India Today places him more than 30 percentage points ahead of the Congress' dynastic scion Rahul Gandhi. However, a deep-seated skepticism toward incumbents in India could reduce voter enthusiasm for Modi as he eyes the 2019 general election. Entrenched regional satraps in eastern and southern India are also posing obstacles to the BJP's bid to encroach on their turfs.

Public dissatisfaction over the lack of adequate job creation in a country of 1.3 billion people and the persistent underperformance of the agrarian economy are two of Modi's Achilles' heels. The prime minister has sought to allay these grievances by citing how aspirational Indians have become under his rule. He argues that Indians "want more because they have faith in me" and that he sees himself as a flame stoking the "drive for change" and upward mobility. If some segments of society are dissatisfied with his performance, he views that itself as a remarkable transformation from earlier eras when Indian citizens had given up entirely on corrupt and inefficient governments and lost all hope.

Modi's initiative to designate 115 least developed corners of India as "aspirational districts" and to pool all levers of government for their uplift is his innovative way of turning around a problem on its head. He won the 2014 general election by appealing to this aspiration and is looking to continue that theme by weaving it alongside his signature achievements of high gross domestic product growth (the International Monetary Fund forecasts 7.4% in 2018), low consumer price inflation, and infrastructural improvements that have been realized at a record pace during his first term.

Like most developing countries, India has long suffered from systematic embezzlement and maladministration. Modi has no magic wand to eradicate corruption, but he has set a powerful moral example by ensuring a scandal-free central government. India's ranking in the Transparency International index has improved significantly in Modi's first term compared with the low points reached under his preceding Congress government from 2009 to 2014. The perception that Modi himself is personally ascetic and a crusader who checks kleptocratic tendencies within his own party, if not in Indian society at large, gives him an edge over rival politicians.

Another intangible aspect where Modi holds the advantage in India's hectic political year ahead is his ability to paint a picture of the country where attitudes are being transformed. The prime minister often dons the hat of a paternalistic school teacher tutoring the nation about the virtues of civic duties of cleanliness and selfless service, and championing a minimal state which empowers ordinary people instead of tying them down in a web of dependence.

His campaigns to end subsidies and encourage entrepreneurship among India's bulging youth cohort contrast with rival parties, which are steeped in the old "welfare handout" culture and patronage politics.

While pro-business policies had been in vogue prior to Modi's advent, he has deregulated the economy much more and triggered a staggering 30-point jump in 2017 in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business rating for India. It is now ranked at 100 out of 190 countries.

Still, Modi has been cautious in tilting India in a liberal economic direction. He is rolling out a huge new health insurance scheme for the poor labeled "Modicare" which could cost $1.7 billion per annum. The notion that one must "appease" downtrodden voters with freebies and goodies is so ingrained in India that Modi is not averse to using some of these populist instruments, especially with the national elections on the horizon.

In foreign policy, Modi is instinctively bolder and more ambitious than his predecessors. He has furthered India's strategic partnership with the U.S., Japan and Israel by crossing established red lines and demonstrated an affinity for risk-taking in dealing with cantankerous neighbors Pakistan and China.

He has educated India's historically inward-oriented masses about the value of engaging fully in world affairs and positioning India as a "leading power" in the international order. His knack in selling the India story abroad and to attract phenomenal amounts of foreign direct investment for India's growth are acknowledged by a large swathe of Indian people.

Habitually status-conscious Indians have responded positively to Modi's ambitious foreign policymaking. A new opinion poll by the online social platform LocalCircles in May 2018 finds 82% of respondents concurring that "India's image and influence in the world has improved" under Modi. With national elections approaching, Modi will project an India that is stronger, braver and smarter in diplomacy.

Avoiding conflict escalation with President Xi Jinping's assertive China through strategic readjustments, and underplaying fundamental discord with U.S. President Donald Trump's economic nationalism, while ratcheting up robust military responses to terrorism emanating from Pakistan, will likely be the winning foreign policy combination as Modi eyes the 2019 elections.

In India, ruling parties can afford to govern on the basis of manifestos and ideologies for four years but ultimately tend to descend into catch-all politicking and wooing of voters in their fifth year to get reelected. Modi has thus far carefully and skillfully honed his reputation as an economic reformer and a global statesman, but everything he does in domestic and international spheres from now on will be interpreted from the prism of the general elections of 2019.

The BJP has been accused of hubris, complacency and over-reliance on Modi's individual charisma. The prime minister's imposing personality and his unparalleled mass communication skills have covered weaknesses of his party in various states of India. Election results coming every few months from states going to the ballot box suggest that nothing less than a herculean national narrative from Modi will be needed to keep the faith of the bulk of India's complex, regionally attuned electorate decisively in the BJP's camp.

He has to convince voters segmented by caste, religion and language to rise above considerations of ethnicity and province and envisage who they want to see as their national leader when it comes to national elections. The macro picture is where Modi is ahead of his peers and he would be playing to his strengths in the general election with a heavy dose of nationalism. Whether this overarching national message can override local frustrations and disappointments is the moot question.

The odds are that he can pull it off in 2019, but arduous groundwork is required.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His most recent book is "Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India's Prime Minister."

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