India’s Election Is a Referendum on Modi

No matter who wins the vote, governing the world’s largest democracy is about to get more difficult.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters during a campaign rally ahead of the national elections in Cooch Behar in West Bengal state on April 7. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters during a campaign rally ahead of the national elections in Cooch Behar in West Bengal state on April 7. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

On April 11, Indians head to the polls to elect a new Lok Sabha—the more powerful lower house of Parliament. But it is not a one-day vote: The election spans five weeks to give a potential 900 million eligible voters a chance to cast their ballots. And while there are several different political parties vying for power, the election is largely a referendum on the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the performance of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India for the last five years with an absolute parliamentary majority. Modi’s 2014 victory marked the first time in three decades that a single party won a majority of seats in Parliament; polling data suggests that won’t happen this time, so a coalition government is a more likely outcome. If that happens, governing the world’s largest democracy is about to get more difficult.

Modi has long enjoyed high approval ratings. In 2017, 88 percent of the Indian public held a favorable view of him, according to Pew Research Center surveys. But there are new indications that his star has begun to wane. While 70 percent of Indians expressed satisfaction with how things were going in 2017, the most recent Pew survey found that the ratio of satisfied Indians has dropped to 55 percent.

Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country is connected to how people feel about the economy. The ratio of Indians who believe the country’s economic condition is good has fallen by 27 points—from 83 percent in 2017 to 56 percent in 2018. India’s economy grew by 7.3 percent in 2018—faster than China’s growth rate and more than the 6.7 percent average under India’s previous Indian National Congress-led administration—but those numbers are clouded by the fact that the Modi government changed the methodology of calculating its GDP.

Modi has also failed to deliver on his ambitious promises to create jobs. In 2019, nearly 19 million Indians will be jobless, and roughly 39 million will work in poor-quality jobs vulnerable to displacement, according to estimates by the International Labour Organization. Three out of four adults say a shortage of employment opportunities represents India’s biggest challenge, and two-thirds think job opportunities have gotten worse over the last five years. Supporters of the Congress party are 21 percentage points more likely than backers of the BJP to voice the view that job opportunities have worsened—a partisan sign of how those who care about these issues may vote.

The picture is mixed on inflation. Roughly three-quarters of the public believe rising prices are a very big problem, and about two-thirds say such inflation has gotten worse during Modi’s time in office. But in fact the official inflation rate has fallen steadily during Modi’s tenure, in part because of sunken global prices for crude oil, of which India is a net importer. Even so, low food prices are hurting India’s farmers, who constitute a large base of voters. India’s mostly cash-based economy already suffered at the end of 2016, when Modi announced a sudden recall of 500- and 1,000-rupee cash notes in a bid to reduce corruption; instead, studies now show that India’s GDP dropped by as much as 2 percentage points because of that experiment, with farmers and low-income wage earners suffering the most.

As they prepare to vote, 65 percent of Indians think terrorism is a very big challenge for the country, and 59 percent think it has gotten worse under Modi. This is one issue, however, where recent developments may work to Modi’s advantage. While 53 percent of Indians say the situation in Kashmir has gotten worse over the last five years, 58 percent support the government using more military force in dealing with tensions there. And that is exactly what Modi has done. On Feb. 14, after the Pew survey was conducted, a terrorist attack in Pulwama in India-administered Kashmir killed 40 Indian military personnel. The attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed. India responded with a rare show of force, sending fighter jets across the border into Pakistan for the first time since 1971. This response was generally well received by the Indian press—despite reporting in Foreign Policy showing that while Pakistan downed an Indian jet in an aerial dogfight, India was unable to land a blow on Pakistan’s fighter planes. If Modi is perceived as having had the better of the skirmish, he is likely to make inroads at the ballot box.

From the BJP’s perspective, the most troubling public opinion finding may be that only 54 percent of Indians are satisfied with the way their democracy is working, down significantly from 79 percent in 2017. And such satisfaction is highly partisan: 75 percent of BJP supporters are satisfied with how Indian democracy functions, compared with only 42 percent of Congress backers.

The sources of this dissatisfaction must be particularly troubling to elected officials facing voters over the next few weeks. Two-thirds of Indians believe that public officials are corrupt, and a similar share say graft has gotten worse since the BJP came to power. This is notable because the BJP’s 2014 victory came in part because Congress was weighed down by several corruption scandals. If the BJP too is seen as tarred with the same brush, then voters may be less inclined to give it a second chance.

In a harsh judgment on their democracy, 58 percent of the Indian public say no matter who wins an election, things do not change very much. This disdain for the electoral process may, in part, stem from the fact that only 33 percent of Indian adults believe elected officials care what ordinary people think. Notably, this is one of the few nonpartisan findings—both BJP and Congress supporters say elections don’t matter and politicians don’t listen.

India’s growth rate makes it the world’s fastest-growing major economy. But rather than quelling dissatisfaction, India’s rising prosperity is fueling discontent: While 66 percent of Indians believe that today’s children will be better off than their parents, that ratio has fallen by 10 percentage points since 2017. India is less optimistic than it has been in recent years, and that’s a challenge the next Indian government will fail to address at its own peril.

Bruce Stokes is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @bruceestokes