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India’s Cult of Modi

The recent Indian election will be a case study in how to upend the conventional assumption of electoral politics that an incumbent is judged on his record of performance against his own promises. Prime Minister Narendra Modi fulfilled none of his, so why did voters reward him with a landslide victory?

NEW DELHI – In 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power at the helm of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after articulating a vision of a revived India, a manufacturing giant with high-tech capabilities which could meet the rising aspirations of a growing young population. Modi promised voters that his administration would be an era of “achhe din” (good times), marked by “minimum government, maximum governance,” inclusive development (“sab ka saath sab ka vikas”), high employment, and rising economic growth and prosperity. Voters believed him in droves.

But in India’s just-completed election, Modi repeated none of this. He knew full well that the hollowness of his own promises (and his abject failure to fulfill any of them) would come back to haunt him if he did.

So, instead, Modi ran a very different sort of campaign. India, he claimed, was beset by enemies within and without. Only he – a muscular nationalist with a 56-inch chest – and his stout band of watchful Chowkidars could keep the country safe from terrorists, infiltrators, “anti-nationals,” and “termites” seeking to hollow out the sturdy structure of the majoritarian Hindu Rashtra, a Hindu nation, that he was building. It worked. Modi’s “khaki” campaign gave him an even bigger electoral victory than in 2014: 303 of the 543 seats in the lower house, and another 50 in the hands of his allies.

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