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India election

Modi whips up nationalist sentiment in final election phases

Indian leader cranks up security rhetoric while avoiding economic issues

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves towards his supporters during a roadshow in Varanasi, India on April 25.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- As India's 39-day general election enters its final phases, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is ramping up rhetoric around national security in his high-octane campaigns and brushing aside doubts over the credibility of the government's economic data.

"This chowkidar (watchman) will serve you round the clock," Modi said on Wednesday, addressing a huge rally of supporters for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in New Delhi's neighboring Haryana state and referring to himself as the watchman of the country.

"In the past five years, a stable [BJP-led National Democratic Alliance] government has empowered the armed forces who now enter militant bases in Pakistan to kill terrorists," he said to the enthusiastic crowd.

Modi and BJP have made national security their main election platform after their government sent warplanes into Pakistan in response to a suicide attack in the Indian part of disputed Kashmir that killed 40 paramilitary police in February. The attack was claimed by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, whose chief Masood Azhar was named a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council on May 1, in a victory for Modi's government.

Nationalist sentiments have been running high among voters since the February attack, with Modi seen as a strong leader capable of defending the country against longtime foes like Pakistan. The main opposition, Indian National Congress, has criticized the Modi government for cashing in on these sentiments and also claiming sole credit for the security council's move given that India has been trying to get Azhar blacklisted for about a decade.

"No section of the society is safe under Congress," Modi said in his speech, adding his government has worked for all, including farmers, the lower castes and other economically disadvantaged Indians. He steered clear of the economy and appeared unfazed by questions about official data.

A survey by a state agency, findings of which were first published by the Mint newspaper on Wednesday, showed over 35% of companies in a database used to calculate gross domestic product growth could either not be traced or were wrongly classified, raising fresh doubts about the reliability of government data.

In the past, Modi's government had been accused of fudging data to present a better picture of the economy under his tenure. India is reportedly growing at roughly 7% year-on-year.

On the latest report of gaps in GDP data, the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation said in a statement: "There is no impact on the existing [GDP] estimates for the corporate sector as due care is taken to appropriately adjust the corporate filings at the aggregate level based on the paid-up capital."

Kaushik Basu, professor of economics at Cornell University in the U.S. and former chief economist of the World Bank, tweeted that as India had a global reputation for the quality of its statistics, it was "unfortunate" to see this damaged. "On the plus side, this can explain why India's GDP numbers were not matching with its poor record of job creation."

In late January, a local newspaper, citing an unpublished government survey, said unemployment rate hit a 45-year high of 6.1% in the fiscal year ended March 2018.

With five of the seven phases in the general election for a total of 543 parliamentary seats over, Modi and his party appear unfazed by the criticism. They seem to be going all out to try to secure as many seats as possible in the last two phases on May 12 and May 19, including in the capital and key states such as Haryana, Punjab, Bihar and West Bengal.

"Despite jobless growth and [Modi government's policy shocks such as] demonetization of high-value banknotes and a chaotic rollout of a goods and services tax, voters, including traders, continue to support Modi," said Narayan Bareth, a political analyst based in northwestern Rajasthan state bordering Pakistan.

"Voters cheer the party's statements like 'we have taught a lesson to Pakistan,'" he said, while also pointing out that the BJP has better organizational skills and resources than the opposition.

The BJP won all 25 seats in Rajasthan in the 2014 elections and is also expected to perform well this time, though they may lose two to three seats in the state, Bareth said.

The opposition Congress has attacked the Modi government over unemployment and high debt levels among farmers. "In the past five years, farmers, youth and small traders, they all have suffered," said Priyanka Gandhi, the party's star campaigner and sister of leader Rahul Gandhi, during a roadshow in Rohtak in Haryana on Tuesday.

However, Modi is confident of his win. "The picture is clear after five phases [of the election]," Modi said. "You will find out by the evening of May 23 [when all ballots will be counted] that there will be a Modi government in place again for another five years," he said amid chants of 'Modi, Modi' from the crowd.

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