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The Strange Triumph of Narendra Modi

Can India’s Prime Minister Succeed Even as the Economy Plummets?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 2018 Denis Balibouse / REUTERS

When India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, ran for the top job five years ago, he campaigned as the country’s best hope for economic reform. The government he ran against, led by the Congress party, had mismanaged the economy, fallen into paralysis, and faced one major corruption scandal after another. Modi convinced voters that he was the answer to their economic woes. He spouted slogans like “minimum government, maximum governance” and promised that the “government has no business to be in business.” On the strength of such promises, he led his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a sweeping general election victory in 2014 and followed that with a landslide reelection in 2019.

Modi has enjoyed remarkable political success in that time. Public opinion surveys show that he is as popular today as he was five years ago. He has created the most powerful, centralized prime ministerial office since that of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi 35 years ago, concentrating many cabinet functions in the hands of close aides. Modi’s party has secured a second straight parliamentary majority and radically expanded its grip on India’s states: today, two-thirds of all state governments rest with the BJP or its allies. If current projections hold, the BJP and its allies could occupy a majority in India’s upper house of parliament—which must confirm major legislation passed in the lower house—by the end of next year.

The dominance of the BJP, however, has surprisingly little do with its economic track record. Modi has succeeded politically despite—not because of—the economy, which is in the midst of a protracted downturn that began on his watch. For his second term, the prime minister has doubled down on the grand economic promises he made in his 2014 campaign and gone still further, setting a goal of turning India into a $5 trillion economy by 2024. But his government has struggled to articulate just how it will bring about India’s economic renewal. While the prime minister has yet to

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