During his campaign, Modi faced questions about India’s mixed economic performance in the previous five years, but he won over voters with promises to shore up national security and by pushing a Hindu nationalist agenda.
In the past six months, he’s faced two significant challenges: nationwide protests over a controversial citizenship law, which led to violent attacks on Muslims, and the threat of thousands of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.
His handling of the latter has earned praised at home and abroad. But the biggest test is arguably to come — reopening the country while keeping its 1.3 billion people safe.
Element of surprise: a Modi hallmark
Perhaps worst affected were the millions of migrant workers who travel from rural areas to work in cities each year. In the lockdown, work suddenly dried up, leaving many of them stranded without pay. Many were forced to walk vast distances due to the public transport shutdown — and not all of them made it.
Modi’s sudden decision — accompanied by poor planning and execution — left local administrations confused over what was and wasn’t allowed, such as exemptions for online grocery deliveries amid the halt on all e-commerce operations.
“This is a part of his governing style and it can work during normal times but it’s not a good way to operate in a time of crisis where you throw surprises at 1.3 billion people,” said Vivek Dehejia, a professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa.
This, of course, was not the first time Modi has made a snap announcement. On November 8, 2016, Modi declared 500 rupee ($7.50) and 1,000 rupee ($15) notes worthless, which made up about 86% of the cash in circulation, in a bid to switch the country to digital payments to stop corruption and tax evasion.
“In each case, there was a four-hour window for people to react and absolute pandemonium broke out,” said Dehejia.
The result was massive lines at banks, change was nearly impossible to find, and some businesses resorted to barter, with India’s poor and most vulnerable bearing the biggest impact. People in remote places missed the window to exchange years’ worth of savings in old currency notes.
“You need to think about the consequences and how this will impact millions of people,” said Meghnad S, an associate editor for Newslaundry, an independent online news outlet.
Distracting from the economy
“Good days are coming,” was Modi’s campaign slogan, as he secured his first term in 2014 on the back of grand plans for the country’s economy.
But the lacklustre figures had little bearing on the 2019 election results, which saw Modi return to power with a bigger mandate.
India’s unemployment rate hit 8.75% in March, up from 7.03% in May last year — and is even higher after the coronavirus shutdown.
And with the economic destruction wreaked by the pandemic things are unlikely to improve.
As the country nears the end of a near 10-week lockdown, as of Friday, India had more than 165,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 4,700 deaths.
In his last national address on May 12, Modi announced an additional financial package to help the economy.
The new stimulus package, along with previous measures taken by the Indian government, would account for about $266 billion, which is around 10% of the country’s GDP, according to Modi.
Furthemore, for many Modi’s demonetization strategy built a narrative that he is a strongman who took on black money, and therefore has taken successful economic action.
“Despite the amount of pain caused, a lot of people still love the fact he did something like that,” says Vivek Kaul, an economic commentator and author. “If the idea was to get black money out, there are lots of ways to do that, but that would have involved a lot of work.”
Promoting Brand India
Modi is renowned as a master of public relations.
He’s become known for his bear hug-embraces of world leaders, while his slogan “Make in India” signaled his intention to rebrand the country as the world’s next manufacturing hub. In February, he packed the world’s largest cricket stadium for a rousing welcome rally for the US President Donald Trump, taglined “Namaste Trump.”
Modi’s flair for PR has been evident during the pandemic, with India promoting its role as a global leader in pharmaceuticals.
A number of world leaders lined up to thank India for its work supplying generic drugs like hydroxychloroquine to meet a rise in demand during the pandemic — including President Trump.
“Extraordinary times require even closer cooperation between friends. Thank you India and the Indian people for the decision on HCQ. Will not be forgotten!” Trump tweeted.
Modi also heavily promoted the country’s decision to fly 20,000 citizens home from foreign countries during the pandemic. According to Meghnad, from Newslaundry, it was an example of Modi’s external PR efforts to present India’s success to the world — internal migrants’ troubles during the lockdown received much less attention.
Dehejia believes there is “a huge cognitive gap between the rhetoric and the reality” of Modi’s vision of India as a growing economy and an important player in international affairs, after recent events dented the country’s soft power and image as a vibrant democracy.
“This was well before the (coronavirus) crisis when anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests were taking off. That was not good for India’s brand as a liberal democracy. The migrant crisis has further damaged the brand,” says Dehejia.
Modi has not been shy about his pro-Hindu religious policies and has lived up to pledges made on the campaign trail.
Last August, he made the surprise decision to scrap a constitutional provision that granted Jammu and Kashmir relative autonomy, which sent the region into turmoil and saw tens of thousands of new troops deployed.
Then in November, his government granted Hindus permission to build a temple at the centuries-old Ayodhya holy site, previously claimed by Hindus and Muslims. The next month, India passed a bill to give Indian citizenship to immigrants from three neighboring countries — but not if they are Muslim.
The pandemic has provided more opportunity to marginalize Muslims, after a March gathering in New Delhi of the Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Muslim missionary group, resulted in a large cluster of cases.
Reports of Islamophobic attacks, both online and on the streets, began to surface, with Muslims being accused of spreading the virus.
Some members of his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began comparing the incident to terrorism.
On Twitter, the head of the BJP’s information and technology unit, Amit Malviya, called the gathering part of an “Islamic insurrection” while Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the BJP’s Minister for Minority Affairs accused the event organizers of a “Talibani crime.”
“Modi did put out a tweet on harmony but it felt like an afterthought. There’s a lack of communication and it’s more obvious because otherwise he tweets about everything under the sun,” said Meghnad, from Newslaundry.
“Obviously, they (Tablighi Jamaat) are at fault and action should be taken but to paint an entire community and the conflation of the actions of a few is ridiculous. The government should actively come out but they let it turn into the monster that it did,” he added.
Priorities on spending
While Modi’s government has announced $266 billion in relief packages during the pandemic, Dehejia, from Carleton University, points out that much of what was announced in a week-long series of press conferences by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had already been committed.
“Part of the Modi government brand has been to make these big announcements over things that they’ve already been doing or what previous governments have done and brand it as a new package … The amount of new money committed is essentially quite small,” he said.
Sitharaman’s penultimate press conference highlighting reforms to sectors such as mining, defense and the country’s space program raised eyebrows over the relevance of the announcement during the current situation.
“Tone-deaf is the only charitable explanation,” said Dehejia. Many felt more should have been invested in the country’s creaking healthcare infrastructure, which has been an issue regardless of the party in power.
According to the World Bank, in 2017, India allocated around 3.5% of its GDP towards health. This compares to the United States, which spent 17% of its GDP on healthcare and poorer nations such as Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, which set aside 13.4% and 12% respectively in the same year.
Looking ahead, spending wisely and investing in the right parts of the economy will be crucial — though experts say Modi has such a strong mandate that he’s essentially free to do what he wants.
And India’s next election isn’t due until 2024.
The bigger issue is the lack of credible opposition. The 2019 election dealt a sharp blow to the India’s main opposition Congress party, which won just 52 seats compared to the BJP’s 303. To win, a party needs 272 elected seats out of 543.
The result marked the Congress party’s second-worst showing ever in a general election.
“A crisis of any kind greatly empowers the incumbent. Whether it’s Trump’s nightly news conferences or Boris Johnson’s or Modi’s announcements, that’s what’s visible to the public and opposition parties struggle to make an impact or appear on the evening news,” said Dehejia.
“What is the credible alternative at the national level? Modi’s the only game in town for India.”