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Voters In India Allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi To Stay In Power

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 2014, Narendra Modi swept to power with stunning support. He then built toilets in slums. He revamped India's tax system. But he has struggled to create jobs for millions of Indians who enter the labor force every year. Some economic failures didn't stop him, though, from winning a clear victory in India's weekslong general election. He has won with an even bigger majority than he did five years ago. Sadanand Dhume is a fellow with the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute. He specializes in politics in South Asia and is in Delhi for the election.

Thank you so much for being with us.

SADANAND DHUME: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: India has record-high unemployment. You have been traveling around the country, speaking to voters. Why did they re-elect Modi?

DHUME: In a nutshell, Modi is Teflon-coated. When you speak to voters about him, they don't really think of him the way pundits talk about him. They see him as a good man. They see him as someone who is working tirelessly for the betterment of the nation. And for many voters, the small programs that pundits sometimes deride - things like the government giving people money to build toilets. Those kind of microtargeted programs really seem to have worked in terms of how voters perceive the government.

MARTIN: I mean, let's talk about the economy. You've been critical of the prime minister when it comes to his economic promises. What happened under Modi these last few years?

DHUME: The hope in 2014 was that Modi would be a market-friendly economic reformer, that he would fix the labor laws, that he would make it easier to acquire land for industry. Now, he did not do any of those things. And instead, he focused on these grassroots populist measures. The economy is not doing that well. But just in purely electoral terms, this has been a successful strategy for the prime minister.

MARTIN: You have written that instead of being a principled economic modernizer, that Modi's come to, quote, "resemble a Hindu version of the Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban." Orban's someone who is largely seen around the world as an authoritarian figure. Is India moving in that direction?

DHUME: There are many, many parallels. He has stood up pro-government media that spend all their time attacking the opposition instead of attacking the government. So that kind of right-wing cultural populism - in that sense, India is definitely headed in the same direction as a place like Hungary.

MARTIN: India has an incredibly young electorate - people who are desperate for job opportunities. With the unemployment rate as high as it is in India and fears about a recession, how is Modi going to deal with the growing economic problems there?

DHUME: This is probably the most important question that faces Modi. India needs to create 1 million jobs every month just to stay in the same place. And the young voters who are seeking jobs are also people who have reposed great faith in the prime minister. Now, ideally, he is going to finally buckle down and put in place the reforms that many of us were expecting during his first term. Otherwise, the danger is that some of this passion will be channeled more and more towards religious nationalism and towards suspicion of religious minorities.

MARTIN: Sadanand Dhume is with the American Enterprise Institute and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. He joined us on the line from Delhi.

Thank you so much for your time.

DHUME: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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