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Political setbacks diminish India’s Prime Minister Modi’s image of strong man

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a public meeting in Jerenga Pathar in the Sivasagar district of India's Assam State on January 23, 2021.

Biju Boro | AFP | Getty Images

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reveling in his image as a strong and determined leader. But the prime minister was forced to make a stunning U-turn recently, abandoning controversial agricultural laws after years of protests - a move an analyst called a "public policy failure."

"While I apologize to the compatriots, I would like to sincerely say today that there may have been a shortcoming ... that we could not explain the truth as the light of the lamp to the peasant brothers," Modi said in a national television speech. in November last year.

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

India’s parliament passed these laws in September 2020, triggering months of protests in which tens of thousands of farmers took to the streets. The reforms would have removed state protection that has protected India's farmers for decades, subjecting them to unrestricted free market mechanisms where competition would be high.

This was one of Modi's biggest political upheavals since taking power in 2014. The rare apology was a humiliating moment for the Prime Minister, who learned that there are drawbacks to his strong man's approach.

"This is not Modi's first public policy error, although it was certainly the most public reversal," said Akhil Bery, director of the South Asia Initiatives at the Asia Society Policy Institute. The political caveat in the agricultural reforms "showed that there are limits to his power," he told CNBC.

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

When the government is unable to resist protests and criticism, it destroys Modi's image and he must look to change course.

Neelanjan Sircar

Center for Political Research

"Still, when we look at some of the remarkable attempts to use the executive in this way, we do not find many successes," he added.

"About [it's] land use changes, changes to India's citizenship rules or agricultural reforms, the government has been forced to either stop or reverse its proposed policies, "Sircar said." When the government is unable to resist protests and criticism, it destroys Modi's image, and he must appear to be changing course. "

High-stakes state polls

These political missteps could not come at a worse time for the Prime Minister as India goes 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 parliamentary elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controls four of the five states.

"The upcoming election in Uttar Pradesh will be a key test of his popularity - whether people get enchanted by his style of governing or not," Bery said.

"In some parts of the state, yes, he will be a magnet - especially in the west [Uttar Pradesh] where there is a strong agricultural circle. These farmers are right against the government because of the agricultural laws, "he added.

Yet Modi remains India's most popular leader. According to 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 of 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" poll released in August, only 24% of respondents thought Modi was the best choice for the next prime minister at the time. It was a sharp drop 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 rising inflation and rising unemployment.

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

He can no doubt make a comeback. From 2001 to date, Modi has constantly reinvented itself ...

Milan Vaishnav

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Carefully crafted persona

Despite his current political problems, Modi is a very capable 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 strong man to CEO as prime minister. One does not necessarily know what his next avatar is. But he has been one step ahead of the opposition at every hour. trip, "Vaishnav remarked.

Another factor that works in Modi's favor is India's divided opposition, which has failed to capitalize on the prime minister's political shock.

"The Congress party certainly seems to be in a dizziness at the national level," said Sircar of the Center for Political Research. "The rise of 'third parties' in India on the national stage ... is a symptom of the problem. It is unclear whether the opposition can fight much in electoral terms, whether they are united or not."

Hardline tone remains

One thing seems clear though. Modi will hardly moderate his tough approach up to the state election. This is evident in the current tone and tenor of the campaign so far, political analysts say.

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

What recent events in India show is that political leaders in India can be defeated even though they are personally very popular.

Neelanjan Sircar

Center for Political Research

The one thing, "we have learned from Indian politics is that political actors - whether Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi or Mamata Banerjee, rarely change their government and organizational tactics," Sircar said, adding that the Prime Minister will not give up his hard tactics to limit the political damage to his image.

This is mainly because, he argued, Modi's populist persona is not built on his ability to adopt politics, saying his record is "bad" on that front. Rather, it stems from projecting "an image of a person that the people put their faith in," Sircar said.

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

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