India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is a mesmerizing orator, in the way of a talk-show host with an acerbic tongue, and this month a campaign crowd of more than 50,000 showed up in Deoria, a hardscrabble town in the state of Uttar Pradesh, to hear his story. They knew and loved the part about how this son of a tea seller rose through the party ranks with no help from family connections. But the rest of his rags-to-power tale is changing fast.
Mr. Modi took office in 2014 billing himself as a pragmatic business reformer who could restart economic growth in India. But the promised growth has not followed, and in the last year or so he has begun pitching himself as a champion of the poor. “They” — the wealthy elites, the long-ruling Congress Party and its Gandhi family dynasty — “have been stealing from you for 70 years, and I will give India back to you,” he told the Deoria crowd, which roared its approval.
At a time when voters worldwide are rejecting established leaders and turning to populists who promise aggressive solutions for their economic frustrations, Mr. Modi is sensing the mood and increasingly positioning himself as a populist strongman. He is now running the most centralized administration India has seen in decades. And the strategy is working with a lot of voters.
On Saturday his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., decisively won the election in Uttar Pradesh. It is India’s most populous state, with more than 200 million people, and one of the poorest, with an annual per capita income less than half the national average of about $2,000. Uttar Pradesh is a powerful base for a born-again champion of the poor, and Mr. Modi’s victory here stands as a popular endorsement of his recent makeover. It may encourage him to centralize power even more as national elections approach in 2019.
Mr. Modi’s message has turned 180 degrees. In 2014, he promised “minimum government, maximum governance” — a streamlined administration that would not interfere in the private sector. He talked about attracting multinationals with tax breaks, about privatizing state companies and business-friendly land reforms. Now he speaks only of helping the poor, providing loan waivers to farmers, giving out free cylinders of gas and cleansing the system of corruption and the streets of filth.
Ostensibly, the focus of the Uttar Pradesh vote was to choose a new state chief minister, but it became a referendum on Mr. Modi and his new direction. The other parties named a candidate, but Mr. Modi asked people to vote for the B.J.P., and allow him to choose their chief minister. The subtext of all his speeches was that only he could solve India’s problems.
By the final days of the campaign, the Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi, was giving listless speeches to bored crowds — barely 5,000 showed up at one I attended in the town of Pindra — focused on trying to pop Mr. Modi’s growing personality cult.
The prime minister proved surprisingly impervious. Back in 2014 he had promised to revive economic growth, create jobs and decentralize the government by empowering state chief ministers. But today growth remains stuck around 5 percent to 6 percent — even if a new official accounting methodology puts it above 7 percent. India is not creating the millions of jobs needed to employ its rapidly growing population, and far from empowering new chief ministers, Mr. Modi is expected to install a loyalist in Uttar Pradesh whom he can control.
I spent five days following the campaign, and it gradually became clear why Mr. Modi is so resilient, including his can-do reputation and his success in battling the scourges of corruption and inflation. In India, rising food prices have toppled many leaders, including Mr. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh. But under Mr. Modi inflation has fallen from double digits to 3 percent, causing it to vanish as a political issue. This was partly the lucky result of falling oil prices, and partly a credit to Mr. Modi’s budget restraint.
The unattached prime minister is also seen as free of grasping family ties, and thus less corruptible. His three-year-old administration is untouched by scandal, a rare achievement. Many voters thus accept Mr. Modi’s argument that corrupt elites had been failing since independence in 1947, and his clean administration deserves more than three years to deliver on “vikas,” development.
My travels took me through Varanasi, a Hindu holy city that is the prime minister’s home constituency in Parliament. Residents blame state authorities for the squalor here, not Mr. Modi. On my way out of the city, a man told me I was about to witness “the many good things the state government has done for our roads and bridges,” in a tone so deadpan I couldn’t be sure if he was being sarcastic.
But the drive eastward quickly led into barren lands that evoke the “Mad Max” movies, as if someone had superimposed gas engines and mobile phones onto medieval villages. At the skeletal beginnings of a suspension bridge over the Ganges River, locals told me the bridge was incomplete 13 years after construction because each successive state administration halted work to turn the project over to its favorite contractors. Diverted toward a rickety pontoon bridge, I hit a mile of stopped vehicles, all halted by a car that had slipped off the steel slats. Later, fitness watches in our van started announcing “10,000 steps,” “15,000 steps” — apparently counting bumps in the road.
The development hurdles facing India are this basic, and many locals believe Mr. Modi is the answer. Manmohan Singh was seen as a tool of the Gandhis and was often overshadowed by a cabinet of powerful rivals, but Mr. Modi is the opposite — increasingly unchallenged and respected for it.
The World Values Survey found that between the mid-1990s and the early part of this decade, 25 of 30 countries that responded to the survey in both time periods saw an increase in the number of people who agree that having “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Parliament and elections” would be good for their country. In India, support for this proposition spiked to 70 percent from 44 percent, the highest level after Ukraine. India also ranked near the bottom in popular support for private enterprise, alongside former Communist bloc nations like Russia and Ukraine.
Mr. Modi’s makeover as a strong-arm champion of the poor is thus tapping into India’s fundamentally socialist DNA. His most striking use of state authority came on the evening of Nov. 8, when he announced that India would begin withdrawing large currency bills — 86 percent of the currency in circulation — starting at midnight.
Advertised as a way to force wealthy tax dodgers to turn in their “black money,” and catch them unawares, the scheme also threw the lives of poor savers into chaos. Yet Mr. Modi has managed to portray himself as a can-do leader and critics of the currency cleansing as elitist outsiders. “On one hand are those who talk of what people at Harvard say, and on the other is a poor man’s son who through his hard work is trying to improve the economy,” he said at the Deoria rally.
The early Mr. Modi, with his talk of “minimum government,” was often compared to Ronald Reagan, but now the comparison is more often to President Trump. Not since the late 1970s — when supporters of Indira Gandhi would say that “India is Indira, Indira is India” — have so many identified the nation with one leader.
Mr. Modi makes his grand entrances alone, and dominates the national conversation. In Uttar Pradesh, some voters could not name a leader other than him. For all his oratorical gifts, Mr. Modi rarely meets reporters, and his aides are openly dismissive of the Indian press and its role in a democracy.
The prime minister is also turning inward. Early on he worked to raise India’s global profile, traveled often to foreign capitals, and sought peace with archrival Pakistan. Lately he travels mainly to Indian state capitals and has adopted his party’s old view of Pakistan as an incubator of terror. His message to the B.J.P. faithful: Expand our domestic base so that our brand of Hindu nationalism faces no obstacles.
As the campaign unfolded, Mr. Modi’s team built on an old B.J.P. theme, about how previous governments had catered to the 20 percent Muslim minority in Uttar Pradesh, reserving for them unfair shares of public jobs, services and welfare assistance.
Later a top Modi aide insisted to me that this was a “development” issue, but the sectarian overtones seem clear; the B.J.P. did not field a single Muslim candidate for any of the 400 legislative positions at stake in Uttar Pradesh. In Delhi, some political analysts argue that Mr. Trump, with his unfiltered attacks on the media and immigrants, has freed Mr. Modi to embrace this more exclusive nationalism.
So the rise of Western populists is now emboldening peers in Asia. Mr. Modi is bringing relative political stability to India, by fragmenting the opposition and concentrating power in his hands, thus shifting the driver of economic growth from the private sector to the state, and freeing himself to conduct radical economic experiments like his currency cleansing policy. And now with his election victory in India’s most populous state, his populist convictions are likely only to intensify.
The New York Times, March 12, 2017