Narendra Modi rides nationalist fervor ahead of India election

Polls predict Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance will just win a parliamentary majority, a sharp drop from his commanding mandate five years ago. (Reuters)
Updated 10 April 2019
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Narendra Modi rides nationalist fervor ahead of India election

  • Polls predict Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led alliance will just win a parliamentary majority
  • ‘There is anger and disillusionment in the countryside’

NEW DELHI: India’s prime minister is rallying his nationalist base as the world’s biggest democracy begins a general election on Thursday, but it has become tighter than anticipated, thanks to dwindling incomes for farmers and scarce jobs.
Polls predict Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) alliance will just win a parliamentary majority, a sharp drop from his commanding mandate five years ago, when he vowed to turn India into an economic and military power.
But his government’s inability to create a million jobs every month, and ease farmers’ distress over low product prices, has taken the shine off what is still the world’s fastest growing major economy.
From sugar farmers in northern Uttar Pradesh going unpaid for produce, to small businesses in the south shut because they are unable to meet the requirements of a new, unifying national tax, discontent has brewed for months.
“The election has become a lot closer than we think, sitting in Delhi,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of a Modi biography and books on Hindu nationalist groups. “There is anger and disillusionment in the countryside.”
In December, alarm bells rang for Modi’s Hindu nationalists after it lost three key states to the main opposition Congress and its allies, led by Rahul Gandhi.
But a surge in tension with traditional foe Pakistan in February has pushed Modi ahead, as he projects himself as a defender of national security and paints his rivals as weak-kneed, sometimes even questioning their patriotism.
“People were very unhappy, angry that Modi makes tall promises and doesn’t deliver,” said Shiv Chandra Rai, an Uber driver in the commercial capital of Mumbai.
“Everyone said there are no jobs, everywhere farmers are struggling. But on this issue of Pakistan we are confused now. Some people feel we have to vote for Modi on this issue, it is a national problem.”
Modi ordered air strikes on a suspected camp of a militant group in Pakistan after it claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing in Indian Kashmir, launching the first such raid since the neighbors’ last war in 1971.
The nuclear-armed foes engaged in a dogfight after Pakistan sent warplanes into India the next day. They also threatened each other with missile strikes, before Western powers, led by the United States, pulled them back.
Modi claimed victory, vowing more similar action if militant attacks continue in Kashmir. He dismissed concerns over the effectiveness of the strikes and the risk of stirring tension with Pakistan.
“Why do these people get so disturbed when India acts strongly against the forces of terror?” he asked tens of thousands of cheering supporters wearing saffron headbands at a rally this week in western India, referring to the opposition.
A regional leader of a Hindu group linked to the BJP and his bodyguard were killed by gunmen who burst into a hospital in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir on Tuesday, police said, underscoring the BJP’s concern over security in the region.
Militants fighting Indian rule in Muslim-majority Kashmir have warned people not to vote on Thursday.
The BJP was also targeted in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh, when a bomb set off by left-wing militants killed a regional party legislator and four people with him.
The Congress, led by Gandhi, and his charismatic sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who took up a party post in January, wants to steer the campaign back to Modi’s broken promises on the economy.
Gandhi has pledged a monthly payment of 6,000 rupees for the poorest families, about 250 million of a population of 1.3 billion, in a bid to stamp out poverty.
“Congress is trying to pitch in the election with regard to farm distress, rural crisis, unemployment,” said Sanjay Kumar of new Delhi think tank the Center for the Study of Developing Societies.
About 900 million people are eligible to vote in the election, spread over seven phases into next month so that security forces can ensure a free and fair ballot at about a million polling stations.
Results will follow vote-counting on May 23.
Congress has said Modi’s party presents a threat to every opposition group by pursuing its vision of a Hindu-first India, stoking fear among the Muslim minority, a bias the BJP denies.


US’s Pompeo faces thorny issues on India visit, from trade to Russia arms deals

Updated 47 min 6 sec ago
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US’s Pompeo faces thorny issues on India visit, from trade to Russia arms deals

NEW DELHI: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived on Tuesday for talks with Indian leaders in New Delhi, where he is expected to tackle a host of delicate issues from trade to India’s longstanding defense and energy ties to Russia and Iran.
Relations between the United States and India have improved dramatically since the Cold War but they have still fallen short of their promise and now have run into serious problems over tariffs, flows of data and tighter Indian rules on online commerce in one of the world’s fastest growing large markets.
Pompeo landed in New Delhi late on Tuesday night after an unannounced trip to Kabul.
He will kick off his visit to India by calling on Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was re-elected for a second term last month with a powerful mandate that analysts say gives him the chance to take bold reforms to propel Asia’s third largest economy toward faster growth.
Just ahead of his visit, New Delhi imposed tariffs on some US goods after President Donald Trump’s administration threw India out of a group of countries that were allowed duty free access for some of their products into the large US market.
While trade issues are led by the US Trade Representative’s office and the commerce departments, Pompeo is expected to raise some of the concerns US companies have about new rules on local storage of data as well as restrictions on foreign companies’ online operations in India.
“We expect trade and ecommerce to figure in the meetings with the PM and the foreign minister, we are ready to engage them on data issues,” said an Indian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with service rules.

Pressure
Pompeo’s visit is expected to lay the ground for talks between Trump and Modi later in the week on the sidelines of the G20 summit in the Japanese city of Osaka.
India hopes that this week’s high-level meetings will help re-start talks over a trade package the two had been negotiating for months, the official said.
In recent weeks, the United States has also stepped up pressure on India not to proceed with its purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia.
India says the missiles are necessary to bolster defenses against China, but Washington has said it would prefer India to consider other options including US defense firms for alternative weapons systems.
A second Indian official said India believed it had a case for a waiver from US sanctions should it go ahead with the missile system purchase from Russia.
Washington has also threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey, a NATO ally, which is also buying the S-400 system.
Under US pressure India has stopped buying oil from Iran, one of its top suppliers, and the two Indian officials said the oil-dependent economy had taken a hit as a result.
Now, with tensions rising between the United States and Iran, New Delhi is further worried about the security of its energy supplies.