- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2016

VARANASI, India — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won office in May 2014 with an Obama-style “hope and change” message, promising to improve his country’s notoriously backward business climate and boost its underwhelming image on the world stage.

He shook up the Indian political scene and received positive-to-rapturous welcomes on trips early in his tenure to Washington and other world capitals.

But now, many here feel as if the 65-year-old former provincial governor has failed to deliver on his promised reforms, while his pro-Hindu stance has stoked sectarian tensions and tarnished the country’s international reputation.

“Modi’s rule is full of elements that have constantly undermined India’s character as a secular nation,” said Abhay Kumar Dubey, a political analyst and fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.

A recent ABP News-Nielsen survey found that 54 percent of respondents believed Mr. Modi’s job performance was above average. But 47 percent — the highest figure since his election — gave him a negative review, and half thought he had not fulfilled his campaign promise that “good days” were ahead for the country. Forty-two percent felt their lives had improved under the prime minister.

American politicians might shrug off such poll numbers because the government is in no danger of collapse, but Mr. Modi’s enemies have pounced.

“Modi’s support and his winning was more like a hot-air balloon,” said Salman Khurshid, the minister of external affairs under the previous Indian National Congress government, which lost to Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. “It’s lost pressure as time passed. They have support from the people, but it is also true that it’s eroding very fast.”

Mr. Khurshid’s confidence stemmed in part from the BJP’s loss of majorities in state legislative elections in Delhi and Bihar in northern India in February and November, respectively, last year, halting the government’s early political momentum. “Modi had a great election campaign,” said Mr. Khurshid. “But if he would have completed just 5 percent of what he promised, he wouldn’t have lost those two big elections.”

Now, the BJP is working overtime to win state legislative races in Assam and West Bengal, where elections are expected to be called in the next few months.

Those two states are crucial for Mr. Modi. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party controls the lower house of the Indian Parliament, his rivals in the Indian National Congress and other parties control the upper house. In India, state legislatures choose lawmakers for Parliament’s upper house, so BJP wins in Assam and West Bengal would give Mr. Modi more votes for his agenda.

Mr. Modi and his supporters insist they are making steady progress in the face of what a recent BJP broadside called the “baseless propaganda, criticism and negative politics of the opposition to obstruct the government.”

Rumors of a possible Cabinet shake-up last month have been put on hold, and the government has been buoyed by some good overall economic numbers.

Long overshadowed by rival China’s explosive rise, India has been the world’s fastest-growing major economy in recent quarters, with gross domestic product up 7.2 percent for the first half of the current fiscal year. Foreign direct investment in India’s economy jumped 40 percent at a time when cross-border investment totals were falling on a global scale.

“In less than two years, we have taken India to the top of the global league tables of foreign investment and growth,” Mr. Modi contended in a keynote address on the economy late last month. “We have a long way to go, but I feel ours is a journey well begun.”

But the opposition coalition in Parliament’s upper house has managed to slow or block many of Mr. Modi’s reforms, including proposed rules to make it easier to convert agricultural land to industrial uses and a proposed value-added tax that would replace central and state government levies that now often amount to double taxation.

Foreign and domestic investors have signaled their reluctance to pour money into India’s growing economy unless the tax measure passes.

“Failure to pass the [value-added tax] could hamper the government’s ability to ramp up spending on infrastructure needs and preserve the status quo of fragmented domestic markets,” said the World Bank’s recent Global Economic Prospects report.

Hindu champion

The prime minister’s reputation as a champion of the country’s Hindu majority is complicating his government’s agenda as he tries to govern the entire country.

The majority of residents in Assam and West Bengal don’t speak Hindi — the language of most of Mr. Modi’s core supporters. But the party is making headway in the two states because of the fanatical loyalty of small groups of supporters who believe in the prime minister’s vision of a Hindu-centric Indian society, said Yogendra Yadav, an elections analyst who is also a fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies.

Mr. Yadav and others have criticized those groups, which include the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — a Hindu religious volunteer organization that is considered the ideological wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party — of fomenting violence against Christians, Muslims and other religious minorities.

“The BJP is working there on grounds prepared by local and small right-wing groups,” Mr. Yadav said, referring to the BJP. “The party supports Hindu radical outfits. The BJP believes that letting these forces create communal violence on the ground would benefit the party in the polls.”

Predicting success in Assam and West Bengal, Bharatiya Janata Party Vice President Kailash Vijayvargiya said the Bihar and Delhi elections reflect local concerns and won’t be referendums on the prime minister’s record to date.

“The party lost elections last year, but it can’t be figured that people have lost faith in Modi,” he said. “Modi is not a local leader.”

As the prime minister faces political headwinds, his detractors say he has emboldened Hindu radicals who have sparked high-profile controversies.

Activists of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishva Hindu Parishad, another far-right Hindu group, have organized mass religious conversion events to Hinduism. Christian and Muslim leaders have complained about the ceremonies.

Five Indian states led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies have banned the consumption of beef because the cow is a sacred animal under Hinduism, drawing complaints from non-Hindus who believe religion shouldn’t dictate food choices in a country that is officially secular.

In late September, the battle over beef exploded when a mob lynched Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim, in Dadri, a village about 30 miles from the capital of New Delhi, on suspicion of eating beef even though beef consumption is legal in Uttar Pradesh, where Dadri is located. Later, it was revealed that the meat in question was goat.

Akhlaq’s death was not an isolated incident. The Evangelical Fellowship of India, a respected Christian group, issued a report in March 2015 that said 40 people had died in 600 instances of sectarian violence since Mr. Modi came to power. Muslims were the victims in three-quarters of the attacks, the report said.

Mr. Modi garnered criticism for declining to comment on the Dadri incident for more than a week and then taking another week before he explicitly condemned it. He also has taken flak for his silence on other issues.

About 50 writers have returned their Sahitya Akademi literary awards — a top government honor for Indian authors — after the prime minister refused to condemn the assassinations last year of M.M. Kalburgi and Govind Pansare, two liberal writers who raised questions over Hindu idol worship and religious myths.

“You can’t say that some BJP leader lifted a pistol and shot these writers,” said Hindi poet Vishnu Khare. “But these writers were under constant threats from radical Hindu organizations which are allies with the BJP. Modi should have spoken out, but he refused to do so.”

Mr. Dubey, the political analyst, said the prime minister wasn’t directly responsible for the sectarian violence, but he added that Indian voters are seeing a worrisome trend that doesn’t seem to concern their leader.

“It could have stopped if Modi would have spoken out,” said Mr. Dubey. “That is the basic reason I say that the BJP has half dug its grave.”

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