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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aura of invincibility is smashed in key Bihar state elections | The World Weekly

When Indians voted, in their hundreds of millions, for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] in the May 2014 general election, they did so out of a shared desire to see their country grow, economically and politically, into one of the world’s major powers. India is among the world’s largest economies, but per capita GDP was still only around $1,500 in 2013.

With a track-record of runaway economic success as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and a charismatic personality, Narendra Modi was a natural choice. A man of humble origins who worked his way to the top, untouched by the corrupting power-games in New Delhi, it appeared he possessed a clear vision for India’s future, the mandate to translate it into action, and the eloquence and strength of personality to get the job done.

But despite the initial wave of enthusiasm for Mr. Modi, he has faced difficulties in pushing his agenda through Parliament, the courts and the country’s many states. The Indian prime minister has also been distracted by the Hindu nationalist narrative promoted by BJP President Amit Shah and members of his kitchen cabinet who have launched one cultural initiative after the other, often marginalising India’s minorities, notably Muslims, but not exclusively so.

The controversies around Mr. Modi, including his alleged involvement in 2002 religious violence in Gujarat when he was chief minister, in which more than 1,000 people - mostly Muslims - were killed, sparked protests during his visit to the UK this week. Mr. Modi had been banned from visiting the UK for a decade in response to the riots.

‘For us or against India’

First came a campaign called “ghar vapsi”, or “the return home”, under which extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists and their BJP allies sought to “re-convert” to Hinduism people who had adopted other faiths over a thousand years of rule by Central Asian and European invaders up to Indian independence in August 1947.

It was accompanied by a campaign warning against the threat of a “love jihad” by Indian Muslim men, to prevent them from seducing Hindu women into bearing so many Muslim babies that Hindus would be reduced to a minority in India. The third element, spearheaded by Indian home minister Rajnath Singh, sought to outlaw the slaughter of cows, considered sacred by many Hindus.

India has seen a marked uptick in the number of attacks, both verbal and physical, against low-caste Hindus, Muslims, Christians and atheists. There have been several murders, notably the lynching of three alleged Muslim cow thieves or butchers in the six weeks leading up to the Bihar election, as the BJP campaign’s sectarian rhetoric gained in intensity.

Nobody has been immune: Shahrukh Khan, for a decade India’s top box-office star, was called a traitor and an Islamist terrorist-sympathiser by members of the BJP for saying intolerance is preventing India from progressing. A secular Muslim who is married to a Hindu, the actor gained cult status for speaking out against racial profiling after he was detained at a US airport three years ago by security officials. “I am Khan and I am not a terrorist,” he said, famously.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar greets supporters in Patna on Sunday

In turn, that has given rise to a wave of revulsion from many Indians raised on the ideal of inclusive secularism laid down by modern nation’s founders, Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, its first prime minister.

Secular backlash

Thus over the last two months, more than a hundred past winners of Indian national awards – writers, scientists, film-makers, historians and, soon, retired military officers – have returned their honours in protest at the path Indian politics has taken under Mr. Modi’s leadership. Prominent amongst them was Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy, famous for her 1997 novel ‘The God of Small Things’.

“I am very pleased to have found (from somewhere way back in my past) a National Award that I can return, because it allows me to be a part of a political movement initiated by writers, filmmakers and academics in this country who have risen up against a kind of ideological viciousness and an assault on our collective IQ that will tear us apart and bury us very deep if we do not stand up to it now,” she explained in an article written for the Indian Express newspaper last Friday.

“I believe what artists and intellectuals are doing right now is unprecedented, and does not have a historical parallel. It is politics by other means. I am so proud to be part of it. And so ashamed of what is going on in this country today.”

Mahesh Sharma, India's Culture Minister, dismissed the artists, asking what ideologies these writers represented, and saying: "If they are unable to write, let them stop writing."

The tensions culminated in Bihar, where voters overwhelmingly rejected the notion, put forth by Mr. Shah, that a vote against the BJP was an act of treason that would be celebrated in Pakistan. His latter statement proved to be true, as Mr. Modi’s defeat led social media trends there.

Instead of gaining votes, the BJP won less than it had in the May 2014 general election and ended up with fewer than half the seats won by a grand alliance of parties led by long-standing Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Almost unthinkably, Mr. Kumar joined hands with career-long rival Lalu Prasad Yadav to keep out the BJP, and succeeded in limiting its inroads to just 58 of the 243 state constituencies contested on Sunday.

The prime minister, advised by BJP President Mr. Shah, made 30 personal appearances during the Bihar state election campaign and his party’s promotions featured him rather than local candidates, turning it into a ‘Modi versus the rest’ poll.  

The Bihar result has shifted the momentum of Indian politics away from Mr. Modi and towards the opposition parties, notably the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, with whom Mr. Modi has refused to meet since he was elected prime minister.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, left, targeted for his opposition to Hindu nationalist intolerance

Mr. Modi’s opponents have made known their intention to force him into tough negotiations, failing which the opposition will use its majority in the upper house of India’s Parliament to block key reforms, including the planned introduction of a nationwide goods and services tax, and the loosening of laws that make Indian workers very difficult to dismiss. Both are critical to the success of the prime minister’s economic growth policies, especially after a Supreme Court ruling in August forced him to abandon draft legislation that would have allowed the government to forcibly acquire private farmland for infrastructure projects.

"Narendra Modi no longer seems like the juggernaut we saw when he came to power in 2014," analysts from the Centre for Policy Research wrote in the Hindu newspaper. "The drubbing in Bihar significantly weakens the BJP's position at the centre. Many policies that it had hoped to push through are now likely to be blocked or compromised."

Freedom and development

Mr. Modi’s union administration has tried to disassociate the results in agrarian Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, from his plans to develop India into the world’s third-largest economy by 2030.

"I don't see it as a setback to the economy... structural reforms will continue. They should continue at a rapid pace," Finance Minister Arun Jaitley – the Modi administration’s lone  veteran of New Delhi’s power circles – said in an interview with the ET Now TV network.

"Every election is not a referendum. A state election is not a referendum. You are not contesting on any one issue."

With economic growth slowing to sub-7% levels from this year onward, economic analysts and investors are convinced India’s huge population and massive pool of English-speaking skilled workers will be the next major growth engine for the global economy. Indeed, India’s economy, in terms of number of people living below the poverty line, is roughly where China’s was when it embarked in 1991 on the growth drive that has today made it the world’s second-largest economy. Like China, India has the potential to see growth at 7% a year and more if the government provides a conducive environment.

Mr. Modi has attempted to improve conditions for foreign direct investment, which has been reflected in an improvement in India’s global ranking in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business Index' from 134th to 130th place - a low ranking that represents its notoriously difficult bureaucracy, and opposition from farmers, trade unionists, environmentalists and the country’s massive SME sector, made up mostly of so-called ‘Mom & Pop’ stores.

Mr. Modi’s soft-spoken predecessor, Manmohan Singh, told a conference in New Delhi last Friday, the state’s endorsement of Hindu nationalist intolerance and violence could become a significant political risk for overseas investors.

“Capital is likely to be frightened away by conflict,” said Dr. Singh told a conference in New Delhi last Friday. “There can be no free market without freedom.”

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