Cases of Covid-19 in India continue to climb, even as the economy shrinks. China is pressuring the disputed Himalayan border between the two countries, where dozens of Indian soldiers have been killed. Tax revenues have fallen, state governments are unhappy, and 21 million of India’s scarce salaried jobs have been lost in recent months. And yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who recently posted photos of himself feeding peacocks in his serene garden – remains as popular as ever.
How does Modi do it? Although they have responded to the coronavirus in different ways, many of his populist colleagues are struggling. Mexican Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, faced with falling polls, categorically refuses to believe they are true. Multiple missteps in recent months have brought Boris Johnson’s Tories virtually on par with Labor in some recent UK polls. Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party faces a series of difficult local elections. And, of course, there’s US President Donald Trump, whose re-election campaign appears to be based largely on the fact that the pandemic did not exist.
Modi seems to understand something that others do not understand about the relationship between a populist leader and voters. In times of crisis, you can, like Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro, temporarily boost your numbers through money transfers. Or you can, like Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan, use identity politics to distract people from your bungles; this is also being tried in India.
But there is another factor exploited by Modi. The most skillful populist leaders not only detach the electorate’s perception of the troublesome facts, providing an alternate narrative in which they, and they alone, are the stars. To repeat this trick in the face of disasters such as a recession or pandemic, they also need to act. They have to make the kinds of big decisions that their supporters can build a compelling narrative around: a decision that comes across as brave, or stern, or wise, or fatherly, or ideally all of those things.
When Modi, with just a few hours’ notice, withdrew 86% of India’s currency in November 2016, it was unmistakably a disaster. People lost jobs and livelihoods, economic growth was fatally injured, and as all of the money was eventually put back into circulation, none of the exercise targets were met.
What Modi learned from the experience, however, is that it doesn’t matter whether or not the decision you make goes through. All that matters is that people believe that you did something great, something that only you would dare to do, and that you did it for the best reasons.
This is what many Indian voters thought of “demonetization”: if the bet didn’t work, it was everyone’s fault. At least Modi has tried to root out corruption, supporters said, doing something no other prime minister in Indian history, no other world leader has done. (For good reason.)
Just months after demonetization, while Indians still suffered from its after-effects, Modi’s party won a crucial election in India’s largest state. Political scientists Rikhil Bhavnani and Mark Copelovitch found that in fact Modi’s party did relatively better in areas where people were most affected by demonetization. Apparently, the worse the taste of the medicine, the more the doctor must care about the disease and want to cure it.
When Modi shut down the Indian economy in March in response to the arrival of Covid-19 on our shores, he did so relatively early. India has also been perhaps the most drastic shutdown in the world.
As people suffered, voters in all parts of the country knew that Modi single-handedly shut down the economy in response to the threat. By acting quickly and on the largest scale possible, he essentially inoculated his popularity against the political effects of the pandemic. No rival can now accuse him of not doing enough and being believed by voters.
Chances are, the decision to go big will work much better for leaders like Modi and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who also shut down early and harshly, than denying the pandemic will for others, of AMLO to Trump. Denial and delay were, anyway, the wrong way. Now the consequences of not taking action are entirely upon them.
In India, they are on everyone. If the pandemic is spreading, it is because bureaucrats, state governments or the people themselves have failed to live up to the leader’s vision.
Some have hoped the pandemic will cause voters around the world to once again demand the “competence” of their leaders. It’s just wishful thinking. India’s evidence shows that nothing has changed. The populist playbook is always effective, as long as it is in such skillful hands as Modi’s.
(Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg opinion columnist. He was a columnist for the Indian Express and Business Standard, and he is the author of “Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.”)
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(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and is posted from a syndicated feed.)