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India election

For clues to BJP's landslide win, look to Modi's rural support

Vote of confidence for India's PM provides leverage for reform or nationalism

Many analysts predicted the Bharatiya Janata Party would suffer big setbacks in rural constituencies over the issue of farm distress. Instead, its coalition won a majority of the contested constituencies, including many of the supposedly distressed rural constituencies. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

PATNA, India -- Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took political analysts by surprise with his landslide victory in a general election that ended Thursday. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader and his ruling coalition owes India's farmers much of the credit, while they, in turn, gave Modi a personal vote of confidence.

Many of those analysts had predicted the BJP and its allies would suffer big setbacks in rural constituencies over the issue of farm distress, which was much talked about during the campaign. Indian farmers are struggling with declining profitability: depressed producer prices and rising costs.

Instead, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance coalition won a stunning 353 out of the 542 contested single-seat constituencies, including many of the country's 421 supposedly distressed rural or semirural constituencies.

In big agrarian states such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan -- where the BJP lost majorities in state assembly elections last December -- Modi's party nearly swept the board. Confounding predictions of a major loss, the BJP coalition won a majority of districts in the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

Voters in Bihar, another important agrarian state, went for NDA candidates in 39 of 40 constituencies. "Even some NDA candidates were surprised by their own victories," said a person close to the BJP's Bihar organization.

The BJP, originally a conservative party appealing to urban voters, has, over the last two elections, built a support base throughout this predominantly rural country. Its only big weakness is in a few states in southern India, where leftist or regional political parties remain dominant.

Villagers in Bihar, India, including this potato trader, say they voted for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not his political party. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

Interviews with farmers and rural workers near Bihar's capital, Patna, offer some insight on how the ruling party pulled off its upset win. The answer, in a word, is Modi.

"The national general election is different from local elections. It is meant to choose our prime minister. Mr. Modi was the only choice for me," said Satish Prasad Singh, an elderly farmer from the village of Chakram Das. Another, Brit Kosher Singh, 75, said he has been a big fan of Modi for many years. "He is a great leader we are proud of. I voted for him, not the BJP," he said.

The verdict among a dozen or so farmers was the same: The 68-year-old Modi is a proven leader, while Rahul Gandhi, president of the main opposition Indian National Congress and 20 years Modi's junior, is callow. "Rahul is so immature," was one of the milder comments.

That perception is common in big cities, too, where many voters said they saw no sign of competence in Gandhi, the great-grandson of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. "He keeps saying thoughtless things," said a woman in her 30s who works as a secretary in New Delhi.

The perceived credibility gap between the two leaders appears to have played a big role in the election results. It may be that the BJP's victory was less an endorsement of its policies, than as a rejection of the opposition and its leader.

Support for Modi among Bihar farmers is more than just a personal affinity. Nearly everyone interviewed praised the prime minister's "Clean India" initiative, which subsidizes the construction of millions of toilets in the country.

Most also said that every household now has electricity for 22 hours a day. They also appreciated Modi's effort to provide bank accounts to all adults, and the launch in 2016 of a government-run insurance scheme for farmers.

"For the first time in my life, I felt the central government is doing something that makes our livelihood here better," said Deepak Kumar, a 38-year-old produce trader in the village of Vaishali. He, too, mentioned the farm insurance and the toilet construction programs, in addition to subsidies it offers for cooking gas.

One possible difference between urban and rural voters in India was their feelings about Modi's decision to scrap 86% of the bank notes in circulation overnight in November 2016.

The farmers enthusiastically supported the measure, seeing it as a means of punishing the tax-evading rich. They said they felt no ill effects from the so-called demonetization because they did not often hold high-denomination notes.

One farmer in Vaishali said that a wealthy person he knows gave away 500 and 1,000 rupee notes to poor people in the neighborhood when the demonetization began in order to evade tax authorities.

So what of the issue of rural distress?

It could be that farmers are simply unaware of their financial straits. Academic research and media reports have pointed out that demonetization and the subsequent cash shortages have suppressed demand in India's cash-dependent rural economy.

Pronab Sen, program director at the International Growth Centre India, pointed out in a public seminar last December that prices for agricultural goods in Bihar are at the lowest for any state in India, and said it was because "there is not enough cash available within the Bihar economy."

Another possibility is that although farmers are indeed facing hard times, they do not attribute their situation to the Modi government's economic policies.

"The profitability of my produce has not improved," acknowledged R.N. Singhm, an elderly farmer from Chakram Das. Although prices for his crops increased, "costs went up, too," he said.

U.K. Sharma, the 73-year-old leader of a farmers' self-help group, pointed out they cannot sell their produce to government procurement centers, which offer better buying prices than local traders, because "they are too far away. We need better logistics and storage infrastructure to become able to sell our produce to distant buyers," he said.

Jeetendra Sharma, a 48-year-old farmer from the village of Simra, called for more serious government action on water management. "It is becoming harder and harder to secure water for my paddies and fields," he said, pointing to a nearby irrigation canal that has been dried up for months, and to a well whose water level is dropping.

Although the farmers might have these problems on poor performance by Modi's government, they instead expressed optimism that the prime minister will tackle them in his second term.

Comparing the BJP manifestos for the 2014 and the 2019 elections, one finds the latest version has dropped many of its numerical targets for reform.

Land acquisition and labor laws are two of the government's biggest unfulfilled pledges in Modi's first term.

The stock market rally triggered last week by exit polls showing a strong NDA performance also reflect investor hopes that the government will use its big lower house to deal with those issues. Many bank economists and strategists say they hope Modi's second government will submit legislation on these subjects, which they believe will expand private-sector investment and employment.

But the 2019 BJP manifestos did not mention land acquisition and labor reforms, which they promoted in 2014. The ruling party also dropped a specific target to double the number of lower courtrooms and judges, although it kept language that said judicial reform is essential to make it easier to do business in India.

A landslide election win is a double-edged sword for government supporters. The BJP coalition may put its solid majority to work for the public good by implementing necessary but difficult reforms. On the other hand, it may focus on ideological battles or expensively currying favor with voters.

Modi will be tested in this regard in his second five-year term. The question is whether he will use his new parliamentary solid majority to re-energize the economic and administrative reform promises he made in 2014. The temptation will be to use his political capital to push a narrow Hindu nationalist agenda, such as a constitution amendment that tightens citizenship rules and may discriminate against India's large Muslim minority.

In his victory speech on May 23, Modi reiterated his distaste for the political narrative that pits India's traditional secular identity against the BJP's Hindu nationalism. Although he did not reject secularism, which is enshrined in the constitution, the tone of the speech left India's non-Hindu citizens and observers around the world uneasy.

By giving an overwhelming majority to the Modi-led coalition, Indian voters may have unintentionally signaled to BJP leaders that economic reforms are less important, thereby threatening a pillar of India's liberal democracy.

Kanchan Chandra, political scientist at New York University, warned in an essay titled "A Requiem for an Old Idea of India" published last November in Foreign Affairs that the concept of India as a secular pluralist polity is possibly already "being redefined to mean a Hindu polity" through the advance of the BJP.

The latest general election may prove to be the point of no return, depending on Modi's actions in his second term.

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