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Opinion

Opinion: Losing a state election is a serious setback for India's Modi

India’s PM Narendra Modi was seen as a popular, invincible leader. Bihar’s repudiation of his party suggests that may be changing, Shivam Vij writes from Bihar's capital Patna.

Until recently, Narendra Modi was seen as India's most powerful prime minister in decades. He seemed unstoppable and invincible, feared and endeared in equal measure.

Some of that halo came off on Sunday with his party badly losing state elections in Bihar, a key north Indian state. The winners were regional leaders he had decimated in the general elections in 2014.

Back then, Modi became the first leader to win the general election with a clear majority in 30 years. It was also the first time that India's Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) had won an election with a full majority. Many wondered if it was the beginning of a new era in Indian politics, one of Hindu nationalism and of centralization of power in a pan-India party.

Boosting the opposition

The results in Bihar have lain to rest the idea that India had permanently taken a new turn. So important was this Bihar election that even the international media, foreign investors and diplomats were making trips to Patna, the state capital.

Shivam Vij. (Photo: private)

Shivam Vij writes for DW from India

The Bihar defeat will have many short and medium-term implications for the Modi government. For one, it will weaken the political goodwill Modi has enjoyed, giving an embattled opposition a boost of enthusiasm. The Modi government has already been unable to get key legislation passed, especially pertaining to economic reforms, because it does not have the majority in the indirectly elected upper house of parliament.

Unless the Modi government is able to take along the opposition, enacting new legislation will become even tougher. The Bihar defeat will also not help the BJP get more seats in the upper house of the parliament.

Worry about anti-Muslim intolerance

One of the biggest issues to worry India's opposition right now is rising Hindu nationalism, seen in the form of recent killings of Muslims for allegedly slaughtering cows, which are considered holy by some Hindus. Many in India see the "beef lynchings," as the killings are known in the media, as only one example of growing intolerance and Hindu nationalism.

Writers, artists and intellectuals have been returning their national awards in protest. They have criticized Prime Minister Modi of not acting to stop the growing environment of anti-Muslim intolerance. Even in the Bihar election campaign, Modi and his party tried to polarize Hindu voters with Islamophobic statements.

The BJP's parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, will also likely pressure the Modi government to implement its Hindu nationalist agenda as time goes on. Worried about winning the next general elections in 2019, the Modi government will have to take some bold measures. Whether these measures will come in the form of economic reforms, Hindu nationalism or patronage to poor voters, is an open question.

Modi can't delegate

The Bihar campaign was micro-managed by Modi's key aide, Amit Shah, who camped in a Patna hotel for months. Modi himself campaigned in the state every other day, while the party's local leadership was sidelined.

Many say this centralization of power is the problem with the Modi government, and goes hand in hand with his inability to make a difference. The joke is that before Modi, India used to have a government without a prime minister and that now, the country has a prime minister without a government.

Indian voters show their voter ID cards as they stand in a queue. (Photo: EPA/STR)

Voters in Bihar voiced their opposition to Modi's policies

There will undoubtedly be pressure on Modi from all corners – business and industry, the Hindu nationalists and leaders of his own party – to delegate more power and be more willing to trust people with responsibility.

No real help for the poor

Bihar's voters also made it clear that they were rejecting Modi's claims of being better than everyone else at delivering development. While inflation has come down substantially thanks to falling oil prices, food price inflation has recently increased a bit, hitting the poor where it hurts them most.

To make it worse, the Modi government has been reducing spending on social welfare schemes to alleviate poverty. The government's new measures, such as banking inclusion and creating manufacturing jobs, have yet to show tangible results in improving people's everyday lives.

Just four days after an embarrassing political setback, Prime Minister Modi will be travelling to Turkey and UK. His frequent foreign visits have become a matter of ridicule for the opposition parties. If Modi is to learn the right lessons from the Bihar defeat, he will have to let his foreign minister do some of what she is meant to do.

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