Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were recently dealt a major blow to their reelection hopes for the national elections in May 2019. Last week, provincial elections were held in five states in the Indian heartland, in what Indian pundits describe as the “semifinals” of Indian politics. The primary opposition party, the Indian National Congress, had a very strong showing, while Modi’s BJP lost over 100 legislative seats.
For a few years, Modi and the BJP were seen as an invincible political force. However, the past year has seen more than a few mistakes on the part of the BJP and Modi himself. Modi undertook the controversial decision to demonetize the 500 and 1000 rupee notes, which made up 86% of the India’s cash. While the move may have long-term benefits, the heavy short-term costs have damaged Modi’s popularity. In addition, tens of thousands of farmers recently took to the streets of New Delhi to protest and demand better prices for their crops and for better policies from the BJP. This protest, on November 29th, was the fourth such protest this year, a strong indication that the farmers’ grievances were not being addressed. This is politically troubling for Modi, as half of India’s population works on farms or in the agriculture sector and they backed him heavily last election. Many of them feel that their support for the BJP has not been rewarded, instead many of the BJP’s policies have hurt them. While India’s economy has grown rapidly under Modi’s watch, agriculture only contributes 15% to the country’s GDP, meaning much of the growth is happening in other sectors.
While Modi and the BJP are quick to point out the strong economic growth enjoyed in the last few years, with India becoming one of the fastest growing economies in the developed world, there have been some areas of criticism here as well. India, with its massive population, struggles with an employment crisis. While the GDP has risen rapidly, it has not translated well into more jobs. This is an especially poignant problem since India has a massive youth bulge – half of India’s population is under 25. Modi’s election promise of a million jobs a month, which many economists deemed impossible, has predictably failed to materialize, leaving many young voters wondering if the Congress Party would do any better in this regard. Also, there was the damaging resignation of Urjit Patel, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), after numerous reports of a growing rift between the RBI and Modi’s government. Reports allege that Modi requested the Bank allow the state-owned banks to resume lending to small businesses, and for the RBI to give the government access to its surplus reserves to stimulate the economy. Critics allege this would simply be a large public spending spree to woo voters immediately prior to the election. Regardless, the surprisingly and unorthodox resignation of the RBI Governor midway through his term potentially also damages the BJP’s hopes for reelection.
While the heavy defeats in what were previously BJP strongholds may appear to signal the end of Modi’s time as leader of India, the reality is it is much harder to predict the political future of the BJP party. First of all, reactions to the “semifinal” may be overblown. There is a deeply entrenched political tradition in India of anti-incumbency, as many Indians willingly vote out those they voted for in the previous election. The BJP was contesting for a record fourth term in two of the states, while a third has a consistent record of voting out the incumbent after one term. Despite the variety of indicators stacked against the BJP, they still managed to put up a very spirited fight, which BJP supporters will take solace from. In addition, the Congress has failed to build a consistent platform for itself. Many of its centrist policies have been usurped by regional parties, and the Congress has failed to groom the next generation of political leadership, instead choosing to rely on the political pull of the Gandhi family. Finally, the Congress has failed to produce a significant counter-narrative to the BJP, instead seemingly relying on simple anti-incumbency sentiment. Finally, for all the criticism being leveled at the BJP, Modi himself remains largely popular, seemingly unstained by the growing anger towards his party. However, India’s government is a parliament system, so Modi’s popularity may not be enough.