Indian policemen march near a poster of Jayalalitha in the southern Indian city of Madras, May 2004.   
STR New / Reuters

When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in 2014, observers saw his ascent as a victory for authoritarian populism. Now, as Modi’s government reaches its two-year mark, a fresh round of regional elections has produced similar verdicts. In West Bengal, voters reelected the autocratic chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, with a spectacular margin. In Tamil Nadu, they reelected the controversial Jayalalitha Jayaram, who has cultivated a cult of personality that politicians and journalists have compared with the one around North Korea’s Kim Il Sung. In Assam, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) went from winning the fifth-largest number of seats in 2011 to winning the largest number, thanks primarily to a campaign based on Modi’s charismatic appeal.

The success of authoritarian leaders in India appears to be part of a global trend, encompassing Rodrigo Duterte’s recent presidential victory in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 2014 presidential win in

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