The newly elected prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, affectionately known to his supporters as NaMo, stormed onto the American stage at a sold out Madison Square Garden event last July. The US-Indian crowd, mostly from the world of business, greeted Modi like teenage girls at a Justin Beiber concert – with screams, streamers, and tears. Modi was a rock star – the Messiah, the Cure, the “2008 Obama” – the change we could believe in.
Then in February, the unraveling began. A regional party in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), resoundingly trounced Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in local elections, taking almost all the seats in the state legislature. Modi fever suddenly seems to be ending, a victim of their over promise, Hindu fanaticism, and arrogance.
With a history of governments that have let them down, the cynical Indian public can lose faith in a heartbeat. Considering the regional Aam Aadmi Party’s last foray in forming a local government in 2012 lasted only 49 days, and that Modi and his party had won all of Delhi’s seven seats in last year’s national election, the quick turnaround is harsh evidence of that.
In the general elections last year, Modi had electrified the nation with soaring rhetoric and a marketing campaign that included Tupac-esque holographic rallies. Tired of the frustrating ten-year rule of a corrupt and inefficient United Progressive Alliance government led by secularist Congress Party, India fell in love with Modi, whose Hindu nationalist party won an unprecedented 52% of the seats. Voters, both the business class and the impoverished, jumped on the Modi ship with unreasonable and fantastic expectations of “Acche din aagaye” – everything will become better.
Modi’s rise to power was murky. In 2001, when Modi was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, savage communal riots between the Hindus and Muslims broke out in the town of Godhra. Modi did little to prevent the riots, and allegedly protected the Hindu fundamentalists after the violence. Since the riots, Modi has carried the stigma of a perceived right wing, anti-Muslim fanatics. When asked by the BBC about what he regretted most about the riots, he had replied, “I could have dealt with the media better.” Yet, the people of India chose the promise of economic success over secularism. Modi had done a good job bringing Gujarat's economy onto the fast lane when he was chief minister, and many Indians believed his pro-business policies would transform India. Pro-business, however, has not translated to pro-poor, at least not yet.
“Modi talks about big things like bringing big factories and bullet trains. That may be good for the country, but that’s not going to help me!” Kumar, anauto-rickshaw driver in Delhi told Al Jazeera in a post-poll interview. Kumar is not alone. Post-election data shows higher turnouts from poorer regions in the east and northeast. About 4 million of Delhi’s 16 million people live in abject poverty and they spoke their mind this election.
Modi’s tenure has made it clear that while the BJP makes vague announcements for the poor, it delivers concrete results only for the corporate sector. For instance, the Land Acquisition Ordinance now makes it easier for an industry to acquire agricultural and tribal land. New labor laws and environmental reforms allow some industries to violate existing standards.
“People — especially in migrant areas, lower castes, Muslims, and other minorities found AAP more exciting because they were better listeners,” says Shiv Visvanathan, a leading Indian sociologist. “They went door-to-door, house-to-house with simple solutions.” While the regional party chose a simple grass-root campaign strategy, the BJP tried to use Modi’s celebrity status to power their way through Delhi. Modi ran the campaign himself, adding to the sting of the failure.
Now even the purported growth story is turning out to be a disappointment. The preliminary estimate for the GDP growth rate for 2015 was 5%. However, right before the Delhi elections, newly appointed chief statistician TCA Anant, released a revised projected rate of 7.5%, exceeding China’s 7.3% - truly a Modi miracle! What BJP failed to mention is that this number arises from a “new definition” of GDP and not an increase in economic activity. Former finance minister P. Chidambaram, of the opposition Congress Party, commented, “Truth be damned. And statistics are lies.”
Leading up to the Delhi elections, accusations of Modi’s past religious fundamentalism returned to haunt him. Targeting of churches in Delhi, and the hard-line Hindu Rashtriya Sangh’s attempts to dictate cultural and lifestyle choices by burning books and vandalizing movie theaters are making people realize the dangers of BJP’s sectarian agenda. The Hindu Mahasabha’s threat to marry couples who were out holding hands on Valentine’s Day, was just a comic topping on a deeper cultural tension. Modi's opponents attacked his silence on the matter, and the swing voters he attracted just one year ago are beginning to reconsider their position in the “secularism” verses “growth” debate.
The scale of BJP's defeat in Delhi suggests a shift in the political landscape. During the national campaign, Modi had declared, "Delhi’s mood dictates India’s mood". What do these Delhi election results mean for the emerging mood elsewhere in India? The victory of AAP is galvanizing non-BJP parties in other states and smaller parties may form coalitions to defeat BJP in some tactical alignment of political forces.
Presently, the main opposition, UPA, is still trying to resurrect itself from the grave, and AAP is still a regional power. Given the mercurial nature of politics in India, AAP’s win could just be an insignificant blip in Modi’s record. However, if this new mood gains traction, Modi's national supremacy will come under serious strain and will require major course correction. First, Modi must end the divisive politics of Hindu hardliners. Second, the BJP needs to deliver on the promises of mass employment, growth, sanitation, and infrastructure.
At Madison Square Garden, NaMo closed with a glib, “may the Force be with you”, but the Delhi elections show that the Force may not be strong in Modi.