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Opinion

Narendra Modi rides high despite Delhi election loss

Indian prime minister's Hindu majoritarian policies have scattered opposition

Narendra Modi addresses his BJP's campaign rally ahead of Delhi state elections in New Delhi on Feb. 3: Modi has been smart in using the Muslim, Kashmir and Pakistan cards to outwit his opponents.   © AP

Commentators and columnists are trying to portray last week's legislative elections in India's capital, Delhi, as a defeat for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After all, his Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party won only eight seats out of 70, while the Aam Aadmi Party took all the rest.

But they are wrong, both on the passing matter of the election and its effect on the longer-term standing of Modi: despite the acrimonious, polarized and even violent election campaign, and the incessant protests around the country against his discriminatory citizenship bill, Modi still stands unchallenged.

In Delhi, the BJP actually improved the number of seats it won, up from three in 2015. More significantly, its vote share went up from 32% to almost 39%. This is the highest the BJP has had in Delhi since 1993. The vote share of its main opposition at the national level, the Congress Party, fell from 9.7% to 4.3%. This does not sound like a total defeat for Modi.

Modi's popularity among the majority Hindu population in the country is so high that many opposition leaders, even during a serious economic slowdown and massive unemployment crisis, are afraid of criticizing him. His bill to prevent Muslim immigrants from certain countries attaining Indian citizenship has been well-received by most Indians.

Except for Congress' Rahul Gandhi, no opposition leader openly targeted Modi while campaigning in Delhi. AAP refrained from criticizing him or his majoritarian policies. Instead, its strategy was to make the election about securing another term for Arvind Kejriwal as Delhi's Chief Minister, so he can continue his welfare policies.

Supporters of AAP celebrate after learning of the initial poll in New Delhi on Feb. 11: AAP refrained from criticizing Modi.   © Reuters

Indian politics has become polarized on the basis of religion, and Modi continues to control political narratives in the country. He is seen by many Hindus as a strong and incorruptible leader who takes brave decisions to protect their interests. They might vote for other parties to run state-level governments, but they see Modi as the only leader capable of leading a Hindu-India.

To Modi's base, fanned by the prime minister, Muslims are not loyal to the country and are responsible for hindering India's progress toward becoming a global power. In their minds, the disputed territory of Kashmir belongs not to Pakistan but to India -- and not even to Kashmiris themselves, as they are Muslims.

Meanwhile, for political reasons, Modi has realized it is better to overplay the conflict with Pakistan -- where India has both military and diplomatic superiority -- and to downgrade the rivalry with China, where it finds it harder to compete, not least because of its own economic slowdown.

Modi has been smart in using the Muslim, Kashmir and Pakistan cards to outwit his opponents.

None of his majoritarian policy decisions are being openly challenged by the major political parties, who fear alienating the country's Hindus. These decisions include a ban on a Muslim form of divorce; support for a Supreme Court ruling handing over the land of a demolished mosque to build a Hindu temple; and his demotion and splitting of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two lower-ranking territories.

Similarly, opposition parties are criticizing the discriminatory citizenship act but are not openly taking part in the protests against it, which are led by Muslim women and students. In Delhi, where the protesters have been sitting for over two months, no opposition leader, including Kejriwal, has visited them to show solidarity.

Indian Muslim students sit in a protest against a new citizenship law in Kolkata on Jan. 27: opposition parties are not openly taking part in the protests.   © AP

Modi's anti-minority policies have invited international criticism and some pockets of loud protests in India, but have also enhanced his stature as a leader who can protect the interest of the Hindu majority and put Muslims and other minorities in their place. He can brand any opposition leader anti-India or anti-Hindu if they object.

The malleable media and lack of opposition unity have allowed Modi to control the political narrative for his own benefit.

The results of state elections should not be seen as a test of Modi's popularity and electability in India, which is now under the spell of majoritarian machismo. As a recent survey found, Modi continues to be India's most popular leader today. The world will make a mistake in considering the result of the Delhi election as a loss for Modi or his brand of right-wing majoritarianism.

Ashok Swain is a professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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