India’s prime minister continues to impress.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is emerging as a potentially transformational leader — with the cult of personality. Thanks to major state elections just held, the former chief minister of the progressive state of Gujarat has turned into a colossus.
On Saturday, India announced the results of those state elections. In Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with a population over 200 million, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Modi cleaned up, winning 77% of the seats in the U.P. Assembly. In the adjacent hill state of Uttarakhand, the BJP tally was 81%. (The Congress Party was restored in Punjab, and in the small states of Goa and Manipur coalitions emerged.)
Modi has pulled off a stunning result in a federal system where states wield much clout. He has also defied much conventional wisdom: the annulment or demonetization of 86% of the cash money supply in November was expected by some pundits to badly damage the prime minister’s prospects. That shocking policy imposed abruptly in a major cash based economy signaled that ill-gotten or undeclared wealth would not be tolerated. It underscored Modi’s commitment to good governance, in contrast to the various scandals during the previous administration of a Congress Party coalition — in mining, telecom, defense, and the Olympics, which helped assure Modi of his victory in the general election almost three years ago.
Uttar Pradesh is often regarded as a political bellwether, at least for Hindi-speaking north India, from whose ranks most of the prime ministers have historically come. U.P., as it is frequently called, is the heart of rural north India. It is the traditional “Bharat Mata,” or Mother India, an image of sustenance and simplicity — symbolized by saffron, cows, bullock carts, and oil lamps. Predominantly Hindu with a significant Muslim minority, it is the India of dusty brick and mud villages, tubewells humming, farming routines for wheat, sugar cane, rice, and mustard seed — and cattle. It is the India of diesel electric locomotives traversing flat, dry terrain by day and night, stopping at 19th century railway stations built by the British. While India has many souls, U.P. is one of them.
Besides defying the betting odds and recovering from the currency debacle, Modi has managed to transform his brand, or persona. Once viewed as a successful chief minister of a state of corporate entrepreneurs and investors, or a “business guy” with recognized implementation skill, Modi has emerged as a champion of the poor: His statements are more about empowerment of the poor, and not about subsidies. The prime minister has also positioned himself as the defender of Other Backward Classes, a term used by the Government of India to designate certain isolated castes and tribal populations.
India needs political continuity and cohesion in its federal and state governments to continue the economic liberalization started by Narasimha Rao in 1991 but diluted by opposition, scandals, and a loss of momentum in recent years. Above all, it needs the type of “certainty” of outcomes that Modi is trying to stand for: Work hard, make it in India, pay lower taxes — and life will get better.
Prime Minister Modi is by no means universally popular. He has been unable to shake the anti-Muslim legacy of the communal riots of Gujarat in 2002, although an investigative body appointed by the Supreme Court ruled that Modi had not acted improperly or condoned the riots. The BJP has also portrayed itself in the color of saffron, signifying holiness and Hindu tradition to some, but Hindu nationalism to others.
The domestic and foreign policy challenges for Modi will require Herculean effort. The country needs to create at least 12-15 million non-agricultural jobs per year, according to an assessment this month of the Boston Consulting Group and Confederation of Indian Industry. This entails emphasis on developing the manufacturing sector, which was only 17% of GDP based on an October 2015 pronouncement.
Modi also wants the country to produce 175 gigawatts of electricity from renewable sources by 2022, a power output that is reportedly as large as all of that of Germany. While rural electrification continues to proceed rapidly, about 240 million people have yet to have access to electricity, and for others that access is sporadic. And it is difficult to fund these domestic initiatives when historical conflicts with Pakistan and current maritime competition with China demand an outsized defense budget.