Political Setbacks Dent Modi's Strongman Image as India Heads for Crucial State Polls

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  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revels in his image as a strong and decisive leader. But the premier was forced to make a stunning reversal in November to abandon controversial farm laws after year-long protests.  
  • This was one of Modi's biggest policy reversals since assuming power in 2014.
  • He learned that there are drawbacks to to his strongman approach, but is seen as unlikely to moderate his hardline style in the run-up to the state elections.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revels in his image as a strong and decisive leader. But the premier was forced to make a stunning U-turn recently and abandoned controversial farm laws after year-long protests — a move one analyst called a "public policy failure."



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"While apologizing to the countrymen, today I want to say sincerely that perhaps there must have been some deficiency ... that we could not explain the truth like the light of the lamp to the farmer brothers," Modi said in a national televised address in November last year.

"I want to tell you, the entire country, that we have decided to repeal all three agricultural laws," he announced. 

India's parliament passed those laws in September 2020 triggering months of protests, which saw tens of thousands of farmers take to the streets. The reforms would have removed state protections that have shielded India's farmers for decades, and subject them to unfettered free-market mechanisms where competition would be high.

This was one of Modi's biggest policy reversals since assuming power in 2014. The rare apology was a humbling moment for the prime minister, who learned there are drawbacks to his strongman approach.

"This is not Modi's first public policy failure, though certainly it was the most public reversal," said Akhil Bery, director of South Asia Initiatives at the Asia Society Policy Institute. The political cave in on the agriculture reforms "did show that there are limitations to his power," he told CNBC.

A hallmark of Modi's governing style has been the use of executive power, with little public debate for "big bang" reforms or policy declarations, said Neelanjan Sircar, a senior visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

"Yet, when we look at some of the notable attempts to use executive power in this manner, we do not find a lot of successes," he added.

"Whether [it's] land use changes, modifications to India's citizenship rules or agricultural reforms, the government has been forced to either stall or reverse its proposed policies," Sircar said. "When the government is unable to stanch protest and criticism, it dents Modi's image and he must look to change course."

High-stakes state polls

These policy missteps couldn't come at a worse time for the prime minister as India heads to the polls in several key states in February and March.

Local elections in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur will be a crucial indicator of public sentiment ahead of the 2024 general elections. Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controls four of the five states.

"The upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh will be a key test for his popularity — whether or not people are growing disenchanted with his governing style," said Bery.

"In some parts of the state, yes, he will be a drag especially in western [Uttar Pradesh] where there is a strong farming constituency. These farmers are fairly opposed to the government due to the farm laws," he added.

Still, Modi remains India's most popular leader. According to the data intelligence agency Morning Consult, his popularity is still the highest among the world leaders they track, and he maintains a strong base of support in India.

Criticism over Covid handling

But the prime minister's popularity was eroded last year as India battled a deadly second Covid-19 wave.

According to India Today's "Mood of the Nation" survey released in August, only 24% of respondents felt Modi was the best choice for the next prime minister at that time. It was a sharp decline from 38% in January 2021.

A key reason for the drop in ratings was the way he handled the Covid crisis and related economic concerns, such as surging inflation and rising unemployment.

Modi was widely criticized for his extensive campaigns and for holding large rallies while India was in the middle of the delta outbreak, which took a devastating toll on its public health system.

Critics argued that the BJP suffered a thumping defeat in West Bengal because of Modi's lack of leadership during the period.

Covid-19 cases are now surging again in India, this time propelled by the highly transmissible omicron variant. And just like last year, the country is again entering a high-stakes election season.

Carefully crafted persona

Despite his current political problems, Modi is a highly skillful politician who is good at reinventing himself to protect his carefully crafted persona, said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Undoubtedly, he can make a comeback. From 2001 to date, Modi has constantly reinvented himself — from Hindu strongman to CEO prime minister. One does not necessarily know what his next avatar is. But he has stayed a step ahead of the opposition at every turn," Vaishnav noted.

Another factor working to Modi's advantage is India's divided opposition, which has failed to capitalize on the prime minister's political stumbles.

"The Congress party certainly seems to be in the doldrums at a national level," said Sircar from the Centre for Policy Research. "The rise of 'third parties' in India on the national scene ... is a symptom of the problem. It is unclear whether the opposition can put up much of a fight in electoral terms, whether unified or not."

Hardline tone will remain

One thing seems clear, however. Modi is unlikely to moderate his hardline approach in the run-up to the state elections. This is evident in the current tone and tenor of the campaign so far, political analysts say.  

"The governance style Modi has adopted in Delhi has been honed after a dozen years in Gujarat and seems intrinsic to who he is as a person and a leader. Coalition-building and diffusing power are simply not compatible with his style," Vaishav said.

The one thing "we've learned from Indian politics is that political actors — whether Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi or Mamata Banerjee, rarely change their governing and organizational tactics," said Sircar, adding the prime minister will not abandon his hardline tactics in order to limit the political damage to his image.

This is mainly because, he argued, Modi's populist persona isn't built on his ability to enact policy, saying his record is "poor" on that front. Rather, it stems from projecting "an image of a person in whom the population places its faith," said Sircar.

"What recent events in India show is that political leaders in India can be defeated, even if they are personally very popular," he added.

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