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Modi has a battle ahead in 2019

With Congress revitalized, election campaign will be full of competing populist promises

| India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi once looked a near-certain winner of the national parliamentary elections due to be held in the summer of 2019.

But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's defeat in three crucial states in the last weeks of 2018 -- Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh -- has blown away any hopes of an easy victory for Modi.

A year ago, the 2019 election was viewed as a foregone conclusion. Now the result looks wide open, and the outlook for Indian politics highly uncertain for the next few months and beyond.

In 2014, Modi swept to power with a high-voltage election campaign. The poor-boy-made-good caught the imagination of young people with his energy and the reputation of efficiently running the government in his home state of Gujarat. People wanted a change from the old and scandal-hit Indian National Congress party.

The BJP won 282 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, reducing the once-mighty Congress that headed the government for 48 years, to just 44 seats. It was the first time in three decades that one party had won a majority, ending an era of often-fractious coalitions.

Modi's reformist, development-based agenda and his promise of "acche din" (good days) ahead appealed to voters. He really looked set to rule for a decade. But four and a half years later the picture has changed. The state-level election results are a rude knock for Modi. But do they portend a bigger failure for the BJP six months hence?

"No" is the resounding response from senior BJP leaders. It is a "wake-up call," and there is enough time for the party to reconsider ideas and work out a winning strategy, they say. But the BJP now has a fight on its hands. Winning the three state elections has boosted the morale of the Congress party and its 48-year-old leader, Rahul Gandhi, bringing the party back into the reckoning for 2019.

Congress was in disarray after the debacle of 2014, struggling to find its anchor. Gandhi, the scion of India's grandest political family, had long been cast as a reluctant politician with little political acuity. The BJP lampooned him as a "pappu" (young, naive, rather foolish person) and dynastic heir.

Gandhi waited in the wings for a couple of years before he took over the Congress leadership from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, just a year ago. He has since confounded his critics and emerged as an effective challenger to the BJP, having led a vigorous campaign in the recent polls, and shown a useful ability to build ties with other parties.

In the past four years Modi strode through world capitals as the strong leader of India with its fast-growing economy. The BJP, which ruled seven states in 2014, extended its control over nearly 20 states during this period. Congress declined from ruling 14 states to just two.

But the Modi government's popularity has suffered from serious economic policy mistakes, which hit ordinary people in their pockets. Top of the list was an ill-advised currency demonetization, in which high-value bank notes were canceled in a misguided effort to tackle corruption. Farmers and family enterprises are still feeling its effects.

This was followed by a hastily-implemented general sales tax, or GST, and unpopular rises in fuel prices. Farmers, always a key constituency, are upset over falling agricultural prices, and young people are angry over the failure to create promised jobs. Modi's image as a leader who delivers on pledges has suffered badly.

Development has receded as a priority for Modi and his focus has shifted to promoting the BJP and the wider cause of Hindu nationalism by building giant statutes to its heroes, renaming cities, roads, and institutions, and reverting to the old right-wing agenda of constructing a temple to Lord Ram on the site of a ruined mosque.

Congress has successfully attacked the BJP government's poor governance record, corruption, unfulfilled promises, and the chronic lack of jobs.

The three states where it has just won have been a bastion of BJP support. But Indian voters are known to spring surprises and vote out governments seen as unresponsive to everyday problems. Such people have little interest, for example, in the current battle over monetary policy but they are passionate about fuel costs, employment and the proverbial price of onions.

State election results do not always determine national voting patterns. The BJP has the capacity to undertake a course correction; its leaders are not averse to political and economic risk. As reforms have tended to alienate the poor by eliminating subsidies, the BJP's reform agenda is likely to take a back seat in favor of populist welfare schemes.

Fiscal prudence, a Modi achievement, will be jettisoned for the next few months. The Reserve Bank of India's surplus funds, which the government has been eyeing, could go to recapitalizing state-owned banks to provide easier loans. The BJP will probably rev up Hindu nationalist agenda over the Ram temple and boost issues that raise raw emotions such as cow protection. Corruption investigations of senior Congress leaders and others will doubtless be expedited to display the government's zeal as well as damage the Congress party's credibility.

Congress has the easier task as the challenger, criticizing government policies and focusing on its economic mismanagement. It will now have to mount a more coherent campaign for 2019 with a specific agenda. It will need new allies from the small regional parties with their temperamental leaders, such as the redoubtable Mayawati, in the large northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and Mamata Bannerjee, whose Trinamool Congress party rules West Bengal.

A united opposition front will substantially increase the vote share of the alliance partners against the ruling party. The Congress party is likely to concentrate on farmers' problems, pledging to raise prices of food crops and reduce electricity prices for farms. It may also consider populist measures like waiving farmers' loans, which, despite its harmful impact on the credit system is an easier option than reforming agriculture markets and distribution.

The stage has been set for a noisy general election with both major parties resorting to competitive populism. Even though he has lost ground, Modi remains the single most popular and most recognizable leader in India and a formidable campaigner. But he has a challenge ahead: to recreate the magic of Brand Modi.

Shubha Singh is an award-winning Delhi-based journalist who writes on Indian politics and foreign affairs, and is the author of "Media and Foreign Policy in India."

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