NEW DELHI -- India's opposition appeared to have Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the ropes late last year, but the recent airstrike against militants in Pakistan catapulted Modi's popularity to a new high just in time for national elections.
"Only a powerful leader like Modi could have taken that decisive step," Anita Chamoli, a homemaker in Greater Noida near the capital, said of the Feb. 26 raid on alleged terrorist targets in Pakistan.
The strike came in response to a Feb. 14 suicide bombing in the Indian-controlled part of disputed Kashmir, which killed 40 paramilitary police personnel. New Delhi has long accused Pakistan of sheltering militants. "Everybody wanted Modi to retaliate and he understood our sentiments," Chamoli added, hailing him as the "best leader" in India today.
Polling suggests many of her fellow citizens agree. Modi's approval rating rocketed to 63% as of March 7, from 32% on Jan. 1, according to CVoters' State of the Nation tracker. His main rival, Indian National Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, suffered a steep drop to 8% from 23% over the same period.
Now, with just weeks to go before the country's seven-phase elections, which run from April 11 to May 19, there is little time for Gandhi to reverse Modi's momentum.
Last year, Gandhi appeared to have found a winning formula in blasting the Modi government's economic stewardship. His Congress party won crucial state polls in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh -- all former bastions of the prime minister's Bharatiya Janata Party. Debt-laden farmers and jobless youths shunned the BJP.
Gandhi continues to hammer Modi on the economy. "In 2018, the Modi government destroyed 10 million jobs in India [despite promising] to create 20 million" a year, Gandhi alleged at a rally in the northeastern state of Manipur last Wednesday, blaming the sudden demonetization of high-value bank notes in November 2016 as a root cause.
In a further appeal to voters, Gandhi on Monday pledged to give 72,000 rupees ($1,046) annually to each of the country's poorest families. He said the income support scheme would benefit 250 million people from 50 million households and "wipe out poverty."
Yet, Modi and the BJP appear to have done a better job of gauging the mood of the country. They have made nationalism and national security a focus of the campaign.
"All our countrymen should be proud of our armed forces," Modi said last Wednesday, addressing about 2.5 million security guards across India via teleconference.
"The forces put their lives at stake ... and settled scores" following the Feb. 14 suicide attack, he said. Pushing back against Congress and other critics who have questioned the government's account of the Feb. 26 airstrike and accused Modi of politicizing the clash, the prime minister expressed astonishment at the opposition's behavior.
Suddenly, Congress is struggling to land its punches -- whether it is pinning the plight of farmers on Modi or accusing the government of corruption in a defense deal to procure Rafale fighter jets from France.
The skirmish over Kashmir is not the only reason for the Congress party's woes. There are growing signs of frustration with the party's reliance on one name -- Gandhi.
"Congress is known for dynastic politics," said Hitender Singh, a soccer coach in New Delhi. "They don't trust anyone but a Gandhi to lead the party. I would rather choose Modi, who has a spotless image, than go for someone from a party that's run by a family."
Singh continued: "Modi does not have a family and works for the nation. Also, when I look at Gandhi, he appears too weak to run the country."
Gandhi, seeking a boost in the polls, earlier this year made his much more popular younger sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra party general secretary for the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. The state is a critical one in the elections, since it accounts for 80 of the 543 seats in the lower house of the bicameral parliament.
In 2014, the BJP won 71 seats in the state while Congress managed just two.
But the appointment may have only fueled frustration and resentment with Congress, even within its own ranks.
In a major setback, Tom Vadakkan, the party's spokesperson and a longtime Gandhi family loyalist, joined the BJP on March 14. "Dynastic politics has reached its zenith" in the party, he complained.
"This is just not acceptable to self-respecting workers and that's why I'm here [with the BJP]," Vadakkan said, adding that he was "deeply hurt" when Congress questioned the integrity of the armed forces after the airstrike.
On the other side, Modi, who rose from humble origins as a tea seller, often refers to himself as the chowkidar or watchman of the country, fighting against corruption and social evils. Gandhi has tried to counter this by saying "chowkidar chor hai," meaning "the watchman is a thief."
On March 16, Modi, who has over 46.5 million followers on Twitter, launched a hashtag campaign called #MaiBhiChowkidar (I too am a watchman), calling on the public to join him. Soon, it became one of the top trends on the social network.
"Modi has an emotional connection with people," said Duru Arun Kumar, an associate professor of sociology at the Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology. "He is also a very good orator and is backed by a strong team that has helped enhance his appeal across the country."
In contrast, she said, Congress "lacks organizational skills" needed to build grassroots support.
Analysts say Gandhi's bet on his sister might boost morale among party workers in the state but is unlikely to have much impact on the election results. Only 7.5% of voters in Uttar Pradesh support Congress.
"The party is lying so low in Uttar Pradesh that even if [Priyanka's entry] manages to turn 10% more votes in Congress' favor, that [will not] give it additional seats," said Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
A party or coalition needs to secure 272 seats to form a government. In 2014, the BJP won 282, its best showing since it was formed in 1980. Congress, which had run the country for 55 years after British rule ended in 1947, secured only 44, its worst performance.
Congress is expected to double its tally this time around, but that would not be nearly enough to dislodge Modi. The BJP, according to Kumar, might lose around 50 seats but should still be able to form a government with the help of its allies in the National Democratic Alliance, as the ruling coalition is known.
"This [election] is largely about alliances," Kumar said. He also argued that nationalism "is looming large on voters' minds," which is likely to benefit the BJP.
After the string of Congress victories in state polls, there had been talk that the next national elections would be more competitive. Gandhi's party was expected to stitch up alliances with regional partners and mount a strong challenge to the BJP.
That ship has sailed, in Kumar's view. While Modi's party has maintained old partnerships and struck up new ones, Kumar said it is "not possible" for Congress to form a major alliance now that parties have started announcing candidates.
Sandip Das, a senior consultant at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, also suggested Congress has largely failed when it comes to building connections. "Congress doesn't have any [key partners] in major states like Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal states. In Punjab also they haven't formed an alliance so far," he noted.
Das said that while unemployment and rural poverty are critical issues, they do not play as big a role in voters' decisions as "caste, religion and region." This, he explained, is why it is crucial to team up with smaller parties with which voters identify.
Modi's team clearly understands this. "The BJP has given up sitting seats in Bihar and Jharkhand [states] to have alliances," Yashwant Sinha, an outspoken former finance minister who quit the party last year, tweeted on March 11. "The opposition parties are not ready to compromise even on nonexisting seats."
While Modi seems to have helped himself with his military response on Kashmir, the fragmented opposition and dynasty-dependent Congress appear to be playing right into his hands.