- - Wednesday, April 10, 2019

KOLKATA, India — “Modi! Modi! Modi!”

The 300,000-odd crowd at a recent rally in eastern India’s Kolkata city breaks out in impromptu sloganeering at the sight of a chopper emerging on the horizon. It would take some more time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to land at a nearby military base and make his way to the city’s biggest parade grounds to attend the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election rally. The chants grow louder and reach a crescendo as Mr. Modi takes the stage.

It’s this rock star connection with his base that Mr. Modi is banking on to secure a second term in the seven-week rolling national elections that kick off Thursday in the world’s largest democracy.

After a taking some hard knocks in the past couple of years, the 68-year-old Mr. Modi may have regained his popularity, helped in no small part by a violent flare-up in the conflict with archrival Pakistan, polls suggest.

Judging from campaign stops, Mr. Modi is leaving no stone unturned to ride the resulting tide of nationalism.

He ordered a covert ground offensive on terrorist camps across the border with Pakistan in 2016 after an attack on an army base that killed 17 Indian soldiers. In February, right before the election was announced, he directed surgical airstrikes on suspected terrorist camps inside Pakistan in retaliation for a car bomb attack that killed 44 Indian soldiers in the restive Kashmir region.

“In the last five years, India has emerged stronger on land, in air and in space,” he tells the gathering in Kolkata, laying out his key campaign narrative of a muscular and assertive India under his leadership.

In a surprise “address to the nation” last month, the prime minister revealed that India had shot down a test satellite with a missile, putting the country in a select league of space superpowers and in the process strengthening his “strong India” pitch.

These days, he is calling himself a “chowkidar” — Hindi for “watchman” — protecting the country and is urging every Indian to do the same. He has prefixed his name on Twitter with “Chowkidar,” and party leaders, workers and supporters are following his online example. The campaign is awash with chowkidar merchandise and metaphor.

Stark contrast

It’s a stark contrast to Mr. Modi’s first run in 2014, when he offered a far more positive message of hope, pitching his record of leading the economically advanced Gujarat province in western India.

The reason for the shift: The joblessness he promised to fix last time continues to fester. The government’s own survey, which it refuses to release but has been leaked in Indian media, shows the unemployment rate at its highest rate in 45 years even with steady economic growth.

“The count of the unemployed has been increasing steadily,” the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, a business think tank, concluded in a recent report. The center found that some 11 million Indians lost their jobs last year.

An agrarian crisis Mr. Modi had promised to address also continues unabated, sparking farmers’ protests in a country where two-thirds of the people live in villages. Some 42% of India’s land is facing drought, covering provinces where a half-billion people live.

Meanwhile, banks are stuck with record levels of sour debt. Exports remain listless as the trade deficit widens, private investments have plunged and many public sector companies face financial strain.

Though many of India’s woes predate Mr. Modi’s election, his dual shock of pulling high-currency bank notes overnight in 2016 followed by a poorly designed and shoddily implemented nationwide goods and services tax threw the economy out of kilter.

Mr. Modi seldom mentions economic performance, his calling card in the 2014 elections, but the opposition keeps hitting him with it. Emboldened by the promise of farming debt waivers that helped it oust the BJP from three northern states last year in regional elections, the opposition Indian National Congress party is offering direct cash transfers if elected to power in New Delhi.

Rahul Gandhi, head of the Congress party and the latest standard-bearer for India’s most durable political dynasty, has targeted the BJP’s economic record and what Mr. Gandhi says are questionable Modi government deals that have benefited the rich and powerful at the expense of ordinary Indians.

“The chowkidar has handed over keys of the banks to thieves,” Mr. Gandhi said in a campaign rally in Katihar this week. “I promise to return these keys to the people of this country.”

Smaller rivals

Congress is the main opposition party but not the only one posing headaches for the prime minister. Mr. Modi has had to contend with powerful regional parties and their leaders, many of whom are determined to block his return.

Mr. Modi personally continues to be more popular at the national level than any other leader. But India’s is not a presidential system and local issues and personalities largely influence national elections. If the BJP continues to lose ground in northern India, its main voter base, then these regional leaders could hold the key to a new government should the party fail to hold on to its tally of 282 out of the 543 directly elected parliamentary seats this time.

The prime minister is also battling fears over his Hindu nationalist agenda, with reported attacks on minorities on the rise since his election.

More than 200 suspected hate crimes, including mob attacks by Hindu supremacists, were reported last year, according to Amnesty International. Intellectuals complain of growing limits to freedom of speech and space for debate and reason.

“To question, to call out lies, to speak the truth, is branded ‘anti-national,’” read a statement by the Indian Writers’ Forum in an appeal to “vote against hate politics.”

Still, no political headwinds have dampened the optimism of Mr. Modi’s campaign officials or, by the look of the Kolkata rally, the enthusiasm of his political base.

Crisscrossing the country to hold hundreds of rallies and launching a publicity blitzkrieg, including a television channel beaming updates of his campaign, Mr. Modi has turned this election into a referendum on himself: a choice between what he describes as his determined nationalism and unwavering dedication to a leaderless opposition’s collective opportunism.

“If you are not interested in taking action, at least do not stop the person who is intent on doing so,” Mr. Modi taunted his opponents at a rally in his home state of Gujarat this week. “Our priority is the country’s protection.”

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