Mohammed Jaffer / Reuters

Indian PM Modi faces disillusioned supporters on US visit

Analysis: The prime minister has attracted an unlikely coalition of fans, and pleases some at the expense of others

When Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, spoke at New York’s Madison Square Garden last September, thousands of adoring Indian-American fans filled the arena and spilled into the streets outside. The euphoric crowd cheered and chanted his name in an echo of the feverish (if staged) rallies in support of Modi and his conservative Bharatiya Janata Party during the Indian general election in May 2014. In his campaign speeches, Modi seemed to embody every supporter’s ideal candidate, like a Rorschach test whose meaning changes from person to person. He was, simultaneously, a crusader against corruption, a business-minded reformer, a self-made everyman, a technocrat obsessed with science and technology and a Hindu nationalist who would restore the glory of ancient India. The media dubbed the 18,000-strong turnout in New York a “rockstar reception” — and it seemed then that Modi was indeed larger than life.

Organizers are expecting a similar crowd when Modi speaks in San Jose, California, today, after meeting with Silicon Valley titans Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Tim Cook of Apple. But back in India, Modi’s image is bruised. Despite the BJP’s absolute majority in the lower house of parliament, the government has retreated on key reforms and flip-flopped on its policy stances on major issues such as taxation, education and health care.

The same fluid appeal that drew voters has posed the biggest challenge. The Modi government draws support from a wide, disparate pool of voters that includes farmers, corporate executives, union members and urban professionals, while relying heavily on the manpower and ideological backing of Hindu nationalist organizations such as the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. “Modi is the one person they can all agree on,” says Thomas Blom Hansen, a professor of South Asian Studies at Stanford University. “He has become this center but there are fundamental contradictions in the coalition he is trying to steer.”

Still, Modi is by far India’s most popular politician: A recent Pew survey found that a staggering 87 percent of the Indian electorate had a favorable opinion of the prime minister and, crucially, almost twice as many people are pleased with the direction of the country as they were when Modi took over from former PM Manmohan Singh last year. The report noted that the leader had “reinvigorated Indians’ faith in their government.”

But Modi’s big challenge is that he can’t seem to pass a law without stepping on the toes of at least some of his supporters, let alone his vocal critics. His attempts at economic reform have alarmed his rural base, while his party’s overtures to the Hindutva or Hindu nationalist faction have stung his pro-business image. A recent proposal to give security agencies access to encrypted data like personal emails alienated many young Modi fans, and small reforms to governance in Delhi ruffled businessmen who found their former access to power had been closed off. And some of Modi’s most ardent supporters have turned impatient, if not outright critical. 

Supporters wave an Indian flag as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to give a speech during a reception by the Indian community in honor of his visit to the United States at Madison Square Garden, Sept. 28, 2014, in New York.
Jason DeCrow / AP

Narain Kataria, a septuagenarian Hindu activist from Queens, had campaigned enthusiastically for Modi, who he saw as a champion of right-wing Hindu political demands such as a ban on religious conversion or a uniform civil code that would replace India’s current system of different family laws for different religions.

But as prime minister, Modi’s public statements meticulously avoid communal overtures. For his first official Independence Day address in August 2014, for instance, many expected the kind of firebrand nationalism and posturing against Pakistan he often displayed in his previous tenure as the chief minister of Gujarat state. Instead, Modi talked about sanitation and the rising price of food.

Kataria says he supports what Modi is doing, but wonders why there hasn’t been any progress on the Hindu right’s more concrete goals. “There’s a provision in the constitution for the uniform civil code. I don’t know why he isn’t doing it,” he says. “A lot of extreme Hindus have been very upset with him.”

And even when he tries to please one faction of his supporters, he alienates others. So while Modi promotes laudable and high-profile initiatives, such as the campaign he launched earlier this year to stop female feticide and promote education for girls, his cabinet ministers routinely make chauvinist and Islamophobic remarks. Mahesh Sharma, the minister of culture, is a repeat offender, most recently sparking outrage earlier this month when he said that “girls wanting a night out is not a part of Indian culture.”

This could be a strategy to allow Modi to project himself as a progressive reformer without alienating his hard-right base, suggests Rohit Chopra, a communications professor at Santa Clara University and author of “Technology and Nationalism in India.” “The BJP says, ‘We’re inclusive, we’re only concerned with development,’ and every now and then someone in the BJP proper will throw a bone to these extremist organizations just to pay the dues, and the minister of culture will say something inflammatory about Islam or Christianity.” 

A business-friendly image

The problem is, bigotry is bad for business, and Modi’s silence at these outbursts has miffed industrialists who have largely supported him. In April, for instance, Adi Godrej, chairman of one of India’s largest conglomerates (and a member of the Zoroastrian religious minority), warned that if left unchecked, “overt Hindutva elements” would drive away foreign investors.

BJP officials insist their government’s main priority is the economy. “We recognize these individuals, that they have their opinions and demands,” says Seshadri Chary, a member of the party’s National Executive Committee. “The government’s priority now is to concentrate on economic development and give fillip to the economy, bring down prices and take all those measures which will help integrate the economy with opportunities around the world.”

Those economic reforms have been hard to enact. The prime minister has traveled around the world to encourage investment, and successfully raised foreign direct investment by 48 percent. But his government has moved slowly on its plan to sell $10 billion worth of shares in state-owned companies this year, and was unable to get its biggest economic reform bill passed, which would have overhauled land regulations in India and made it much easier for companies to acquire farmland for major industrial projects. The land bill ran into stiff resistance from the opposition and rights groups who said the law would allow corporations to forcibly take away land from farmers — and incidentally, from affiliates of Modi’s own RSS, who labeled the bill anti-poor and anti-farmer. And the government’s attempt to overhaul labor laws prompted a strike by labor unions including the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the nation’s largest. 

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a group of Hindu right-wing activists, block roads and crossings as they protest against the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party's demolition of historic Hindu god temples to make way for a Metro train project, in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India on July 9, 2015.
Vishal Bhatnagar / NurPhoto / Sipa

Meanwhile, business leaders, who were optimistic about the economic reforms promised by the prime minister, have grown increasingly critical of the slow pace at which they are being enacted, high interest rates and continued retrospective taxation on capital gains made in previous years. A Moody’s survey of Mumbai businesses from July cited “policy stagnation” and “sluggish reform momentum” as the biggest danger to economic growth, while only half the respondents from a July survey by the Assocham, or The Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, said they were confident of an economic recovery, compared to 82.6 percent in March.

At least part of the business community’s frustration, says Abhay Aima, group head of equities and private banking at HDFC bank, stems from Modi’s anti-corruption campaign in Delhi. Senior ministers no longer take bribes, meetings are held in office buildings instead of five-star hotels and Delhi’s insider culture is in retreat.

While many would view this as a step in the right direction, Aima says, “There used to be an old elite boys club in the bureaucracy … that suddenly got dismantled. Modi said, ‘I will create an environment for you but I won’t bend the rules.’ So there’s obviously resistance.”

An impossible coalition

Many observers say Modi has a far more autocratic way of functioning than previous governments: nearly all policy decisions get routed through the Prime Minister’s Office, while Modi himself remains unapproachable to most people in the government apart from a small coterie of advisers.

That means managing his motley coalition of libertarians, right-wing groups, poor farmers, rich industrialists, middle-class employees, upstart politicians and others falls to him.

The sheer challenge of pulling that off is probably the best explanation for the sometimes baffling contradictions in the government’s positions. “On the one hand India wants to be part of the Security Council, it wants to be taken seriously,” says Ananya Vajpeyi, a scholar with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. “But on the other hand [government officials] are crying about how the Ford Foundation is corrupting our cultural purity. They deport journalists and aid workers and at the same time they want to do more business.”

Liberals fear that should the BJP face a loss of support, the party will resort to the lowest common denominator of Hindu identity politics, which would strain communal relations but likely garner votes. Many say India is already becoming less secular and inclusive, making life harder for minorities, especially Muslims, who are poorer and less educated than any other religious group. A recent ban on beef in the BJP-run state of Maharashtra, for instance, raised an uproar because it disproportionately affected Muslim butchers. The government has also aggressively restricted international organizations such as Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation, purportedly over tax violations, but widely understood as an attempt to stifle criticism of the government and curb foreign funding of civil society.  

After the BJP’s success in national and state elections, party leaders are digging in for the long-haul. But if that’s going to happen, Modi will need to deliver on his promises of economic progress without letting religious bigotry and an authoritarian style of governing define his term — a major challenge when some of his staunchest supporters are already deserting him.

“A lot of people are realizing that there’s no magic wand, no formula that this government has that can do anything radically different,” says Hansen, the Stanford professor. “They went to Modi because they thought here was someone who could get it together, but that’s not happening.”

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