Now, he’s facing the biggest challenge yet to his political supremacy.
But neither Modi — nor the protesters — show any sign of backing down. Speaking at a rally in New Delhi in December, the Prime Minister said the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which came into effect on Friday, had “nothing to do with the Muslims of the soil of India.”
The CAA is only the latest move in a series of steps Modi has taken as part of his agenda to promote Hindu nationalism in secular India. And while Modi’s BJP still has plenty of popular support, some analysts warn that in the long run, these divisive moves could end up costing him. v
The danger for Modi
Modi has made no secret about being a Hindu nationalist — and last year he made several moves to further that agenda.
The register’s supporters say it will help root out undocumented Bangladeshi immigrants, but critics fear it will lead to the deportation of Assam’s hundreds of thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslims, with claims to legal residency.
There are also concerns that the register will be used to justify religious discrimination against Muslims in the state.
But one thing is for sure: over the past year, the BJP’s political footprint has shrunk. At its peak in 2018, the BJP ruled 21 of the country’s 29 states, either alone or with allies. After a series of blows in recent state elections, the BJP has been left with 15 states under its control.
Most recently, the BJP lost the eastern state of Jharkhand last month to a regional party-led alliance that includes the Indian National Congress, the country’s main opposition party.
“With this mandate, the people have defeated BJP’s attempts to divide the society on caste and religious lines,” Congress party president Sonia Gandhi said in a statement.
There’s more to the BJP’s recent losses than growing discontent over their religious policies. According to Jyoti Malhotra, editor of national and strategic affairs at Indian digital news platform The Print, voters are frustrated with Modi prioritizing other policies over the economy.
And people aren’t happy. On January 8, thousands of workers linked to national trade unions took part in strikes across the country in protest against privatization and the impact of the economic slowdown on jobs.
“What’s happened in the last five years is (Indians) kept giving Modi the benefit of the doubt,” Malhotra said.
Opposition parties had won recent regional elections as the economy was in poor shape — and Modi’s BJP hadn’t met voters’ expectations by increasing jobs, she said.
“People aren’t doing well and since demonetization and the badly implemented GST, which had such a big impact, things are not getting better,” Malhotra said. “That’s really the key and what feeds into the voting in the state elections.”
The road ahead
For now, Modi’s party is only losing ground at the state elections. But the protests — and the growing dissatisfaction over the economy — could end up having broader effects.
Gilles Verniers, assistant professor of political science at India’s Ashoka University, expects that over the next few months and years, there will be more confrontations between Modi’s central government and state governments — especially those governed by opposition parties.
But doing so could further tarnish the country’s reputation as the world’s biggest democracy.
India is moving in a more authoritarian direction at precisely the moment international partners and investors would expect the government to concentrate on the economy, Verniers said. “This moment is disastrous for India,” he added.
As for whether Modi’s nationalist agenda will ultimately cost him a third term, it’s too early to tell. Modi still has four more years left of his second term — and for now, opposition parties aren’t putting up a cohesive fight, says Malhotra.
She believes if Modi wants to succeed, he’ll need to focus on the economy, not politicize religion.
But Verniers doesn’t think it’s likely Modi will cast aside his divisive policies.
“My sense is that the government is going to stick to its guns because these are not policies meant to produce an electoral advantage, these are policies for the BJP that are doctrinal and at the heart of what they believe in,” Verniers told CNN.
“The more the BJP focuses on those core doctrinal symbolic policies, the less it’s perceived to be caring for the economy, which shows no sign of recovery,” he said.
But Modi’s success or failure over the next few years will still depend on how well his opponents — both protesters and politicians — can organize themselves.
“I think if somebody does take charge, if a political party takes ownership, then this could have a bigger impact. Remember, the most important fact is the economy,” said Verniers. “If the economy continues to do badly, then I think the Prime Minister and the country is in trouble.”