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Modi's magic is fading fast. Who's next for India?

Andy Mukherjee
Andy Mukherjee • 5 min read
Modi's magic is fading fast. Who's next for India?
Photo: Bloomberg
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Whoever becomes India’s next prime minister, the message from voters to financial markets is clear: “We have moved on from Narendra Modi. When will you?”

With more than 90% of votes counted, it is almost certain that Modi’s Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party will fall short of a majority in the 543-member parliament. However, the BJP will still return to power with the help of coalition partners, unless there is an even bigger upset. All it will take is a couple of key members of the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA, to switch their allegiance to the opposition INDIA coalition.

The challengers have put up an unexpectedly strong fight to weaken, if not end, Modi’s 10-year stranglehold on power. Its performance — 235 seats projected for INDIA versus 290 for NDA, at the time of writing — was enough to sink Indian stocks, which posted their biggest loss in four years. The rupee fell the most in a year. Investors had pumped money into the country’s assets just the day before, expecting a landslide win for Modi based on exit polls that I had described on Sunday as more noise than signal.

Going into the election, many voters were asking the question, “If not Modi, then who?” The BJP manifesto had more than 50 pictures of its leader, and all of its promises were branded “Modi’s guarantees.”

By contrast, the opposition never had a consensus prime ministerial candidate. Rahul Gandhi’s Congress Party was careful to not project its star campaigner as a possible choice, lest the INDIA alliance, an unwieldy coalition of more than two dozen parties, collapsed because of ego clashes. Besides, Modi has never lost an opportunity to taunt the Gandhi family — which has produced three prime ministers — as a dynasty that kept the economy in shackles before he arrived on the scene as a savior. Modi, long separated from his wife, has no children of his own, a fact he has used to portray himself as an ascetic, even holy, figure.

However, by denying a majority to the BJP, voters have clearly signaled that that Modi’s magic has worn off. That would be true even if the 73-year-old becomes prime minister for a third time, and his coalition government lasts its full five-year term. His fading halo can no longer keep people distracted from everyday issues such as high unemployment in cities and depressed incomes in villages.

See also: India’s stock value tops US$5 trillion as Modi’s win powers rally

So the question now is, “After Modi, who?”

From Covid-19 vaccine certificates to fertilizer bags and posters at last year’s G20 summit in New Delhi, the prime minister’s face is everywhere in India. There are Modi “selfie points,” where people can stand next to a cardboard cutout of him and take a photo. He gave advice to students on managing exam stress and delivered a monthly monologue on radio. No matter which politician from his party contested the polls, it was always Modi’s personality cult on ballot papers.

But this cult, perverse as it was in a democracy, is also non-transferable. As the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, who has studied Modi from when he was the chief minister of the Gujarat state, said in a recent interview: “People like Modi have no successor, and it’s very difficult to succeed a man like Modi, especially when you don’t have any dynasty at the end.”

See also: CapitaLand Group to start an operation in India’s GIFT city

Perhaps the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, the umbrella Hindu right-wing organization behind the BJP, will try to find Modi’s replacement in India’s most-populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which is critical to forming a government in New Delhi. Yogi Adityanath, the state’s saffron-robe-wearing chief minister, has acquired a reputation as a strongman. He is known for carrying out house demolitions, particularly of Muslim properties, as extrajudicial punishment following episodes of communal violence. He appeals to the hardliners as someone who can take forward Modi’s agenda of religious polarization at a national level. 

However, before staking claim to the highest political office, Modi had also built up his image as an effective economic administrator in the 12-plus years he ran Gujarat, an industrialized state on India’s western coast. Adityanath will find it hard to replicate Modi’s “Gujarat Model” in Uttar Pradesh, which is more populous than Brazil and poorer than sub-Saharan Africa. 

Besides, this time around, the liberal and the left-wing parties opposed to the RSS and its Hindu-first agenda will be extra vigilant about allowing any fresh myth-making around a political personality. NDA partners will do the rest if they manage to curb the role of Home Minister Amit Shah, who has been Modi’s No. 2. for years. Shah’s control over federal investigative agencies — and the way he used them against political opponents — has made him India’s most-feared man. Alliance partners, now that they can name their price for supporting the BJP, will want to operate without having to constantly worry about the risk of jail or constant surveillance. As would the media. Anchors and editors politely nodded when Modi, during the recent election campaign, spoke of a 1,000-year vision and claimed that he had been sent by God. 

The next person to make such outlandish statements will hopefully be stopped before they reach high office. So who after Modi? Maybe nobody like him. Or at least that’s the preference of voters. Financial markets should just get used to it. - Bloomberg Opinion

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