- - Thursday, April 4, 2019

VARANASI, India — It is the world’s largest democratic festival, complex, colorful and chaotic — and this time, highly consequential. On Thursday, some 900 million Indians will begin a month of voting to select 543 lawmakers and decide whether hard-charging Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have another chance to deepen and extend his political revolution.

Mr. Modi upset long-standing norms in Indian politics by winning the 2014 elections, riding a wave of Hindu nationalism and offering extravagant promises to fire up the hidebound, underperforming Indian economy.

But the 68-year-old Mr. Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aren’t necessarily shoo-ins this time, even though polls suggest his standing has improved after recent tensions with Pakistan.

Mr. Modi has broken too many promises and failed to improve the economy, say many former supporters. He has divided the country, pitting his base of Hindu voters against minorities, say critics. Even so, he has strong backing among Hindus and the middle and upper classes, not least because of his tough stands on corruption and terrorism (read: Pakistan), analysts say.

It’s a vast logistical exercise, with seven phases of voting across the country starting May 23. Political pundits say it’s impossible to predict the outcome, but one thing seems certain: Mr. Modi, in spite of a glowing biopic set to hit Indian theaters Friday, won’t be romping to another win the way he and the BJP did five years ago.

“I don’t think he is going to win this election easily,” said Ajay Gudvarthy, professor of political studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Mr. Modi dominated the 2014 campaign with a promise to reform the economy by increasing jobs, slashing regulatory hurdles and making development trickle down. But even as the gross domestic product has increased output during his tenure, he has presided over slowing economic growth and rising unemployment — 6.1%, the highest in four decades — that the government has taken pains to hide.

That slowing growth has partly to do with two of Mr. Modi’s initiatives: a sweeping sales tax and an abrupt elimination of the lower currency denominations in a disruptive attempt to curb corruption.

Both were shocks to the economy and to a majority of Indians who use small bills to pay for most of their daily needs.

“He curbed currency and made everyone face a cash crisis,” said Mohammad Afrazul, 33, a weaver. “People lined up at the banks. … Only a tyrant could do this.

“I am going to vote for anyone but Modi,” he said. “He promised to improve the condition of weaving business, but he actually did otherwise.”

Unhappy farmers

Analysts say Mr. Modi’s popularity has declined mainly because of the economy and his failure to create jobs, even as his energetic foreign policy has raised India’s profile abroad.

“Modi has become a popular figure when it comes to war and nationalism,” said Mr. Gudvarthy. “But the same popularity has not reached the rural and common India. He is facing the farmers’ wrath.”

Indian farmers, a key part of the prime minister’s base, have held four big protests of the Modi government because of unfulfilled promises to double their income. They have been abandoning Mr. Modi in droves, polls suggest.

“Modi said he would double the farmers’ income, but he actually reduced it to almost nothing,” said Sukaru Lal, 44, a farmer in Mirzapur district of northern India, who took part in the protests. “I am opening a shop to sell daily goods because farming has become a loss for me. If I vote Modi this time, the farming sector will completely collapse.

“We protested to remind him of his own promises,” Mr. Lal said. “We did not ask for anything else. He did not pay attention even after our protest.”

Meanwhile, analysts say India has witnessed a sharp increase in Hindu nationalism over the past five years, bringing a rise in right-wing Hindu groups’ power and violence against Muslims and other minorities. Lynchings over the protection of cows — sacred to Hindus — became far more common, and Mr. Modi was slow to condemn such violence.

Analysts say the push toward nationalism worked initially but that this year’s election has focused heavily on living conditions.

“Modi is trying to convert [nationalism] into votes. He thinks that Hindus will vote for him in large numbers,” said Mr. Gudvarthy. “But Hindus have also problems, which he failed to address.”

The main threat to Mr. Modi is the Indian National Congress, which led the country for most of its post-independence history. The party’s leader, Rahul Gandhi, is part of the Gandhi dynasty that includes Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, his grandmother and father, respectively.

Some expect the opposition parties to band together in a coalition after the May 23 vote count in a bid to unseat Mr. Modi. In India, a party must receive a majority of the vote to be able to rule and choose the prime minister. In 2014, the landslide for the BJP made this unnecessary.

Congress strategists have worked hard to make the vote a referendum on the incumbent and say they will bring a change to what they say are Mr. Modi’s high-handed ways.

“We don’t believe in one man’s voice,” Rahul Gandhi told The Hindu newspaper in an interview late last month on the release of the Congress Party election manifesto. “We believe in everyone’s voice and choices. It requires tremendous discipline and hard work to do, but it works.”

Mr. Modi is embracing his sometimes polarizing persona, saying it is needed to overcome the country’s political inertia.

“This country has seen governments that only made slogans, but for the first time, they are seeing a decisive government that knows how to demonstrate its resolve,” Mr. Modi said at a recent campaign stop in Meerut City, Uttar Pradesh state.

Crisis in Kashmir

Recent events in Kashmir, including a flare-up in violence with Pakistan over the long-divided province, could bring security-conscious voters back to the prime minister’s camp.

In spite of the BJP’s economic woes, nationalism is running high in India after the suicide bombing in Kashmir that killed more 40 members of the Indian military in February — the most devastating attack in the region in three decades.

The attack was allegedly orchestrated by Jaish-e-Muhammad, which operates from Pakistan despite being banned by the country. In response to the attack, India launched airstrikes at training camps of the group in Pakistan, the first time Indian warplanes have entered the country’s territory in decades, escalating tensions to levels not seen since the 1999 war. Pakistan eventually returned a pilot captured during the airstrikes.

Analysts say Mr. Modi has been using the conflict with Pakistan to shore up his popularity. The attack and his response helped promote him as a strong leader.

“India has been facing the menace of terrorism for years,” Mr. Modi told supporters at an election rally in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. “But there is a big difference now: India will no longer be helpless in the wake of terror.”

Sarthak Sharma, 49, a clothing merchant from Varanasi in northern India, said tough talk is partly why he supports the incumbent.

“Modi banned older notes, curbing out the corruption from the businesses and everywhere,” he said. “He attacked Pakistan many times during his tenure, a step which his predecessors could not do.”

⦁ Jabeen Bhatti reported from Berlin.

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