India’s official economic growth rate fell to 4 percent in 2019, its lowest level since the US and EU recessions in 2008. It was thought at the time that Narendra Modi might lose his majority government, and perhaps even his position as prime minister, in the elections held in India that spring. Instead, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased the size of its majority in 2019, winning 56 percent of seats in the lower house of India’s parliament—and winning 65 percent of the seats when combined with a number of BJP-allied regional parties, such as the Shiv Sena (“Army of Shiva”) party in India’s second largest state, Maharashtra.
BJP’s rival the Congress Party, which had held the office of prime minister in 55 out of India’s 67 years of political independence prior to Modi’s being elected in 2014, won just 9.6 percent of the country’s parliamentary seats. Congress’ alliance won 17 percent of the seats, mainly thanks to the southern state Tamil Nadu, where a Congress-allied regional party won 38 of the state’s 39 allotted seats.
Modi’s BJP was thus able to be re-elected with a majority government for the first time in its history. The only politicians who had ever previously been re-elected with a majority were India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi. Until Modi, no prime minister had been able to form even a single majority government since 1989, when Indira’s son Rajiv left office. By defeating Indira’s grandson Rahul in 2014 and 2019, Modi has now joined this illustrious list.
Modi has many skills that have contributed to this political success. He is notoriously hard-working, for example. Yet Modi has also been in possession of an even more important attribute thus far during his political career, the most important a politician can have: luck.
A Quick Analysis of Modi’s Career
Modi’s political career, first as Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014 and then as Prime Minister of India since 2014, has been based on two pillars:
- Economic Ability
- Gujarat was often the most dynamic economy in India while Modi was leading it
- India, despite slowing along with much of the world economy, has maintained a decent economic performance since 2014, and recently overtook China’s growth rate
- Hindu Nationalism
Arguably, some of the most extreme examples of this include:
- Modi’s reaction to (or even deliberate failure to prevent) the 2002 Gujarat riots
- Modi’s selection of Yogi Adityanath to be the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017
These two aspects of Modi’s appeal have contributed to his political success in northern India in particular, where Hindi(-Urdu) is spoken relatively widely and where, especially in inland states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, poorer populations live who may be more receptive to promises of economic growth, anti-corruption efforts and BJP-style nationalism. Modi himself represents the constituency of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh. 20 percent of BJP seats are from that state.
This has led to an obvious, arguably misleading debate in Western media, over whether Modi’s economic pros justify his political cons. This might or might not be a legitimate debate, but it also overlooks one of the key realities of Modi’s career: the fact that much, maybe most, of his economic success has been due to factors beyond his control. Modi has been extremely lucky in relation to factors such as global economic growth, oil and gas prices, and the utterly different economic characteristics of Gujarat (the state where Modi rose to fame) compared to India as a whole.
Gujarat, 2001 to 2014
Modi was Chief Minister of the state Gujarat from October 2001 (eight months after the Gujarat Earthquake) until May 2014, when he became India’s prime minister. Two facts must be recognized to put Modi’s time in Gujarat into context: the exceptional status of Gujarat, and the exceptional nature of the period from 2001-2014.
The period from 2001 to 2014 was the 2000s commodity boom, the period that followed the early 2000s recession when, apart from a sharp dip during the 2008-2009 recession, energy and other commodity prices were high and global economic growth was significant, particularly in China and other developing markets but also in North America and (before the 2010s) Europe. Brent crude oil, for example, rose from all-time lows of $9 in 1998 to $144 in 2008 and $128 in 2012. Modi came into office in Gujarat when oil prices were $20, exited office with oil at $110, then watched from his new office in New Delhi as oil prices fell to $46 in the subsequent seven months. They remained low for the next eight years, until 2022.
The characteristics of Gujarat’s economy are similarly exceptional. Together with its next-door neighbour the city of Mumbai (where about 20 percent of the city’s population speaks Gujarati as a first language), the state of Gujarat is India’s leading commercial hub. This is partly a result of Gujarat’s long and sheltered coastline, which has helped allow it to account for an estimated 69 percent of all cargo volume handled at India’s private ports, as well as being home to India’s busiest public port, a remarkable feat considering that Gujarat’s 60 million people are only 5 percent of India’s population.
Just as remarkable is the Gujarati diaspora, which leads in commercial activity throughout much of the Indian Ocean, particularly in eastern Africa. (The most famous Gujarati abroad was, of course, Mohandas Gandhi, who lived in South Africa for more than two decades. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding leader of Pakistan, was also a native Gujarati speaker, born in Karachi, who was trained as a barrister in England). The diaspora thrives as far away as the US, where 20 percent or so of US-Indians are Gujaratis, and are one of America’s most successful groups.
The Gujarati diaspora has historically also been prominent in the nearby Gulf region of the Middle East. It remains active in the Gulf today, particularly in Oman. Gujarat itself, moreover, holds the most prominent position in India’s oil and gas industries, in terms of oil production, oil refining, oil pipelines, gas pipelines, LNG regasification, and petrochemicals.
As such, the commodity boom and global economic growth both helped Gujarat remain the fastest-growing Indian economy in the 2000s (apart from the relatively small Himalayan states Uttarakhand and Sikkim).
India, 2014 to 2019
India’s economy is the opposite of Gujarat’s. It is relatively insular rather than dependent on global economic activity, the major exception to this being the large amount of oil it imports, more than any country apart from the US or China. Global economic conditions since Modi became prime minister are unlike those which existed prior to 2015, however. Oil prices have fallen to a range of $30-$70, benefiting India. Global and developing markets have slowed, which has hurt India but not nearly as much as it has hurt most other economies, in particular commodity exporters like Brazil or Russia.
There is even a possibility that India’s slowing economy has helped Modi. It may be that the slowing was not severe enough to undercut Modi’s reputation as a great economic steward, yet was significant enough for people to want a great economic steward – Modi – to remain in charge in order to deal with it. In other words, the lucky timing that helped Modi to build up his economic reputation in Gujarat, combined with the fact that India’s recent economic slowdown has not been as severe as many other countries’, may have helped lead to Modi’s huge victory.
This is not a unique situation. Politicians, no matter how praiseworthy or skilled, often do not control their own fortunes. Modi remains in luck now. More troublingly, perhaps, so does Yogi Adityanath.
- Allahabad was recently renamed Prayagraj by Yogi Adityanath’s government, since “city of Allah” was deemed too Muslim a name, despite the city having been founded by the religiously syncretic emperor Akbar. (Similarly, in 2017 it even left the Taj Mahal, in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, off of the state’s tourism brochure, since the Taj Mahal was commissioned by Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan, who unlike his grandfather was perhaps more of an orthodox Muslim as emperor, and who is buried there alongside his wife)
- Modi and Yogi’s BJP ended up winning a majority in Uttar Pradesh’s 2022 state election, becoming the first party since 1985 to lead two consecutive majority governments there.
- Uttar Pradesh became the world’s largest sub-national population around 1960, overtaking Sichuan, which at the time was China’s largest province, with about 70 million people. Uttar Pradesh’s population has grown enormously since then, to approximately 233 million. This growth occurred even though it lost 5 percent of its population when its Himalayan region Uttarakhand broke off from Uttar Pradesh to become a state of its own in 2000.
- Even though Uttar Pradesh’s birth rate has been falling rapidly – it is now just 2.4 children per mother, still the third highest in India but well behind its populous neighbour Bihar, which has 3 children per mother – it nevertheless added about 30 million new inhabitants during the past decade. It did this despite the fact that neighbouring Delhi added 13 million people in the past decade, pulling in millions of rural migrants from Uttar Pradesh
- Uttar Pradesh has the most imbalanced sex ratio of any major province in India apart from Punjab. As of 2011 it had approximately 9.1 women for every 10 men. This is quite a bit more imbalanced even than China (assuming China’s statistics can be trusted), or than just about any other country in the world with the exception of the Gulf Arab monarchies
- Ahead of the 2019 elections, the SP-BSP electoral alliance was formed in Uttar Pradesh between the Bahajun Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), parties led by two former political rivals of one another — Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati – who, along with Akhilesh’ father and predecessor Mulayam Singh Yadav, had consecutively been Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh from 2002 until 2017 (and had also been so earlier, during much of the 1990s). The two parties put aside their long rivalry in response to the BJP sweeping Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 general election and then also winning Uttar Pradesh’s state-level elections in 2017, the first time the BJP had won a state election in Uttar Pradesh since 1996. But their new anti-BJP alliance was not enough to stop the BJP from receiving nearly 43 million votes in Uttar Pradesh in 2019, against 32 million votes in Uttar Pradesh split almost equally between the SP and BSP. As an indication of just how populous this state is, these large numbers of votes were cast despite Uttar Pradesh having the lowest voter turnout (59%) of any state in India apart from Jammu and Kashmir or Bihar
- The SP-BSP alliance won only 3% of seats in parliament despite receiving ~38 million votes (6.2% of the country’s popular vote), the most of any party other than the BJP or Congress. 32 million of those votes came from Uttar Pradesh. This occurred to an even greater extent in the previous election: in 2014, before its alliance with the SP, the BSP received more than 20 million votes, the third most of any party in India, yet did not win even a single seat in parliament! (The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu, in contrast, won 38 seats in this election, of the 39 available in that state, with only about 14 million votes, 52% of the total vote in Tamil Nadu).
- The next largest party, the All India Trinamool Congress, won roughly 4% of India’s popular vote in 2019 and received 4% of the seats, all from West Bengal, India’s fourth most populous state. The All India Trinamool Congress is incorrectly included in the SP-BSP Mahagathbandhan (“Grand Alliance”) on the election results maps shown above
- Though the BJP mainly won the north and west of the country, it also made inroads into the south and east in this past election, more so than in 2014, notably in West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, and Karnataka
- Indira Gandhi was unique in representing multiple constituencies during her 15-year tenure as PM (first from 1966-1977 and then from 1980 until her assassination in 1984). She first represented two different constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, but later upon returning to power in 1980 represented a constituency in Andhra Pradesh, in south-east India
- Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, was until Modi the previous prime minister able to form even a single majority government. Rajiv won a record 76% of seats in parliament in an election at the end of 1984, less than two months after Indira’s assassination. Rajiv too was assassinated, in 1991, one month before a general election. For 25 consecutive years from 1989-2014, India had only minority governments, led by several different political parties.
- The second biggest election victory in India since Nehru came when Indira won 68% of seats in parliament in 1971, including 83% of the seats in Uttar Pradesh. That election took place a few weeks after the deadliest storm ever recorded struck India and Bangladesh, a few weeks before Bangladesh’s war of independence against Pakistan began, and a few months before India would become involved in that war on the side of Bangladesh. It was followed as well by several particularly difficult or noteworthy events in India’s history, such as the 1973-1974 oil shock (a global event which hurt India more than most other countries, given its dependence on fuel imports), India’s first successful nuclear test (Operation Smiling Buddha) in 1974, and the 1975-1977 Emergency and accompanying mass sterilization campaign, during which democratic rights were suspended.
- In the subsequent election, in 1977, Indira lost badly to a coalition of opposition parties, leading the Congress party to lose the position of prime minister for the very first time. Congress did not win even a single seat in Uttar Pradesh in that election, including in Indira’s own constituency. Indira’s son and initial political heir, Sanjay Gandhi, who had played a leading role during the Emergency, also lost his Uttar Pradesh seat in 1977, and survived an assassination attempt that year as well. He and Indira would both make a comeback in the next election, in 1980, but he was killed in a crash while piloting an airplane later that year. Modi, meanwhile, began working for the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization, the RSS – of which the BJP is the affiliated political party – in 1978.
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