Updated: May 2, 2021
In 1969 I found myself sitting in my broiling VW van at the Pakistan-India border waiting for my carnet-de-passage to be approved by the Indians. It took hours and hours of just sitting around in the middle of nowhere waiting. The document was a guarantee from the U.S. consulate in Tehran that I would leave with the van or they would have the tax (100% of the value). India, with its budding car manufacturing industry, was the only country I came across that had that. I was lucky to have met a junior diplomat in Tehran when I was there. Anyway, I was even luckier at the Pakistan-India border. I had been trying for several years to stop using drugs. Sometimes I would stop but eventually I would go back to it. While I was in my van, I had a heavy spiritual experience that culminating in a giant arm and hand ripping the desire for drugs out of me. And that was that. I never had the slightest desire for drugs again. That's over 50 years ago.
I spent nearly 2 years driving around India on that trip; it's a mammoth country. I came in and left through Punjab, although I had side trips to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Nepal. I never made it to Assam, in the far northeast corner of the country up near what was then East Bengal, part of Pakistan, and is now Bangladesh. My friend Rukhsaar is from their but lives in Delhi and works for a tech firm based in Dallas. I speak with her nearly everyday. Members of her team in Delhi have gotten sick. One, who I also work with, died from a lack of oxygen in a Delhi hospital a couple of days ago. Another is in a small hospital in Punjab owned by his family and although he does have oxygen, it doesn't look good. When he left Delhi, he didn't know he had been infected. They don't test for boarding passengers, just for disembarking passengers. That's when he found out he was sick. I wonder how many passengers got infected on that flight, on every flight. All of these people are 26 and 27 year old middle class Indians. Rukhsaar is a jazz singer. Her band was working up a Rickie Lee Jones song I had sent her when Delhi shut down.
Now she's back in Assam with her family. She invited me to visit when it's over. Yesterday India reported a new record-breaking one-day new case load: 402,110 new cases-- and 3,522 Friday deaths, By Monday India will cross the 20 million cases number... although no one who has looked at Indian statistics believes that that gruesome threshold hasn't already been crossed.
None of my friends in the U.S. are Trump fans and none of my friends in Brazil are Bolsonaro fans. And, similarly, none of my friends in India can stand Narendra Modi. I started writing about him in 2007 when I was visiting India on business and he was just a murderous provincial bigot and Islamophobe. My friends in India all tell me the ferocity of the pandemic is finally helping people see what a pile of garbage they elected (twice).
Writing for the Washington Post last yesterday Milan Vaishnav, disagreed: Will Voters Hold Modi Accountable For India's COVID-19 Crisis? Don't Bet On It? He wrote that "If the intensity of human suffering is steadily rising, so too is anger against India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The degree of fury-- especially in urban centers and among the middle class-- directed toward Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government is arguably the highest it has been in the seven years Modi has held office. This week, a Post headline read: “In India’s devastating coronavirus surge, anger at Modi grows.” The Guardian reports that crematorium staffs and relatives of those who have perished have focused their ire on the prime minister and his government. Even some Indian commentators suspect that Modi really will pay a political price this time. But while the outrage is real and the misery immense, the idea that voters will hold Modi to account is no sure bet."
But polls and pundits have always underestimated Modi-- and by a lot. Everyone knows he's a bigot and many of those who embrace him would rather not admit that they back him because he's a bigot not despite it. Vaishnav wrote that "any assessment of Modi’s future prospects must start from a place of humility. If election observers had their fingers on the pulse of the Indian voter, they would have forecast consecutive landslide general election victories for Modi’s party-- yet few did. Indeed, there are structural reasons to doubt the idea of a voter backlash against Modi. For starters, India’s next general election will probably be held in 2024; three years is practically a lifetime in political terms. While India’s staggered calendar of state and local elections allows voters numerous opportunities in the interim to punish the BJP, evidence suggests that Indian voters behave quite differently in state versus national elections."
Modi exhibits a unique political resilience. Just consider the events of the past year: Chinese military forces made fresh incursions into India, temporarily occupying more sovereign Indian territory than at any time since the rivals’ 1962 war; the central government’s stringent nationwide lockdown last spring resulted in a nearly 24 percent contraction in economic activity; and, amid the chaos of that quarantine, India experienced the biggest internal migrant crisis since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. And yet, available polling suggests that Modi’s popularity was hardly dented by those events. Modi’s control of information-- fueled by a mix of repression, media self-censorship and social media savvy-- allows him to shape the public narrative.
In many democracies, voters assess whether their lives have improved during a government’s tenure to determine whether the incumbent should be kept in power. But voters in India-- and in other democracies where populist leaders hold sway--often follow a different path: They place their trust in a leader they find credible and then find ways to justify their support for their favored candidate.
Additionally, India’s principal opposition party, the Indian National Congress, is stuck in time. It is a party with a dynastic leadership, whose long hold on national power fueled complacency and entitlement and whose organizational foundations and ideological moorings desperately need reimagination. The rest of the political opposition is fragmented and lacks a leader with the moral authority to corral any anti-Modi fervor. The bottom line? There is, at present, no figure in the national theater of politics who can go head-to-head with Modi.
If there’s one thing the confluence of populism and the pandemic has taught us, it is that nothing is certain in politics. Even in the United States, though President Donald Trump badly bungled the government’s pandemic response, he nearly won reelection: Had he won just 43,000 more votes in three states-- Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin-- the electoral college would have been deadlocked.
Modi has proven to be a master of reinventing his public persona, shifting from Hindu nationalist hard-liner in the 2000s to reformist technocrat in 2014 to welfare modernizer in 2019. By 2024, don’t be surprised if Modi brandishes yet another face-- one that will allow him to elevate perception over performance to return for another term.
UPDATE: Voters Have Spoken
West Bengal was the scene of a vigorous election campaign this month. Sunday the results were an apparent vote of no confidence for Modi's BJP. The opposition TMC won 214 seats in the state Assembly to BJP's 76. Modi's decision to speak at several super-spreader events went over very badly with the voters.