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Narendra Modi’s economy isn’t booming for India’s unemployed youth. So, why is his party favoured to win another election?

Piyal Adhikary/EPA

Author: Ian Hall, Griffith University

India will soon hold the biggest election ever conducted, starting on April 19 and running through early June. Almost 950 million registered voters will be able to cast ballots to elect the 543 members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

The result is not a foregone conclusion, but most analysts expect Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win another five years in office. After a decade in power, the opinion polls suggest Modi is still well regarded by many Indians and the main opposition parties do not command wide support.

This situation might strike some as odd. The Modi government’s record is mixed – especially in managing the economy – and has disappointed many voters.

To be sure, as the prime minister frequently reminds voters, India has grown faster than many competitors in recent years. But the BJP came to office ten years ago promising double-digit growth rates and it has never achieved that goal.

Worse still, it has struggled to generate jobs for the millions of young people who need them.

Critics point to errors in BJP economic policy they think have stifled growth and job creation. These include:

the shock inflicted in 2016 by the sudden withdrawal of 85% of India’s paper money, ostensibly to combat corruption

the bungled introduction of much-needed reforms to the agricultural sector

and the ongoing protection of India’s big industrial conglomerates from domestic and foreign competition.

Taken together, critics charge, these mistakes have left too many people in precarious work and held back investment in manufacturing, which could offer more people more jobs.

Why, then, do so many Indians still support the Modi government?

Part of the answer lies in the BJP’s ability to appeal to multiple constituencies with targeted messages.

Ruling India effectively depends on constructing and maintaining coalitions – either coalitions of parties or coalitions of voters. Modi’s BJP does both. It is supported by several smaller parties in parliament, but more important in terms of winning elections, is the patchwork quilt of different groups of voters it can marshal.

At the centre of this quilt sits a group of convinced Hindu nationalists, motivated by an ideology known as “Hindutva”. They argue that India’s society and government should reflect what they believe is the will of the Hindu majority, numbering about 80% of the population.

For decades, they have campaigned to end what they perceive as unreasonable special protections given to religious minorities, including for places of worship and faith-based divorce and child custody laws, as well as the autonomous status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Step by step, over the past decade, the Modi government has met many of these demands, locking in the Hindu nationalist base for the BJP.

In 2019, it revoked the constitutional amendments that limited New Delhi’s rights to determine how Kashmir is governed.

Earlier this year, the prime minister also presided over the opening ceremony of a new Hindu temple at Ayodhya, on the site of mosque demolished by Hindu nationalist activists in 1992.

Soon after, the government announced a controversial new law will come into effect that will allow Hindus, Sikhs and others fleeing neighbouring Muslim-majority countries to gain Indian citizenship, but may permit the deportation of Muslims deemed to be illegal immigrants.

And many believe a “uniform civil code” will be next, imposing common marriage, alimony and custody arrangements on all Indian citizens, regardless of religion.

The Hindu nationalist core is powerful, but it is not large enough to give the BJP all the seats it needs to govern.

For that reason, the party has also tried to win over the growing urban middle class. This group is less interested in cultural issues and more concerned with good governance, as well as India’s standing in the world.

In the last two elections, the BJP won their support by promising to crack down on corruption, improve the country’s business environment, build better infrastructure and restore national pride. It is promising to push on with this program so it can hold on to this bloc of voters, and it likely will, in the absence of convincing alternatives.

At the same time, the BJP will continue to seek the support of the rural poor and women, who might back left-wing parties or not vote at all.

To appeal to these groups in recent years, the Modi government has doubled the funding for a rural income guarantee scheme, and launched other programs, including one to provide midday meals to schoolchildren.

It has facilitated the opening of bank accounts for tens of millions, including women. This allows them – in principle, at least – to circumvent corrupt officials and feckless husbands when it comes to receiving welfare payments.

The government has also provided millions of rural homes with toilets and cooking gas bottles, arguing both make women safer.

These measures have paid off so far, with more of the rural poor and more women voting for the BJP in recent elections.

This time around, the party is looking to consolidate support among women, in particular. It has shepherded a new gender quota bill through parliament, which will require one third of Lok Sabha seats to be reserved for women from 2029, among other measures.

The Modi government’s success in winning over these groups is impressive, but it must be noted the BJP has never gained more than 40% of the popular vote in a national election. If it faced a united and effective opposition, it might struggle to win office.

Happily for the BJP, India’s opposition parties are divided and weak. If they could join forces and put their support behind a single, strong candidate to challenge the BJP in individual districts, they might win more seats. However, negotiations to do this have proved tortuous.

Worse still, the fragile opposition alliance has not yet named a credible alternative candidate for the prime ministership.

Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family that led India after independence, is an obvious choice, but is widely seen as an ineffectual dilettante. Successful regional politicians like West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee have limited reach beyond their own states.

Meanwhile, Modi’s personal popularity is high. His modest background and personal charisma still appeal to the young and the aspirational, especially in caste groups historically excluded from power and wealth.

Defeating such a dominant figure will be hard, if not impossible.

(This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article)