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India's Prime Minister Remains Popular In A Country Devastated By COVID-19

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

India has reported the second most coronavirus cases in the world behind the United States. And its economy shrank 24% last spring. And yet, the country's prime minister is as popular as ever. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: When Prime Minister Narendra Modi called a lockdown last spring with just four hours' notice, millions of migrant workers got stranded when their workplaces and public transit shut down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER #1: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: "Oh, government, please help us," one man sang trying to walk to his home village. Many of those stranded were from Bihar, one of India's poorest states, where unemployment hit 46% during the lockdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WORKER #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "We're helpless and hungry," says another worker who returned to Bihar. The government was forced to reverse course and lift its lockdown amid reports that people were starving to death. So when Bihar held state elections this month, it looked bad for the incumbents, a coalition of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party - or BJP - and its allies. Polls predicted a defeat, but the opposite happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The BJP's big victory in Bihar.

FRAYER: Modi managed to win one of the states most hurt by his lockdown. Guru Prakash, a BJP spokesman, says what people want in a crisis, more than anything else, is a strong pair of hands.

GURU PRAKASH: The decision to impose lockdown required leadership, political will. And he did that.

FRAYER: In Bihar, Modi also promised food rations and direct cash transfers to the poor. And he managed to deflect blame for the misery there, says political scientist Sudha Pai.

SUDHA PAI: They think that it's the local officials who treated them badly during COVID. But Modi had sent them money and food and all that. And there's this image of him of somebody above normal politics who is untouched by all the wrong that is happening.

FRAYER: It's as if Modi is invincible, she says. And this isn't the first time he's proven that. Four years ago, there were long lines at banks after Modi invalidated most paper money to modernize a mainly cash economy. It was his signature demonetization policy and it failed, says political scientist Rikhil Bhavnani. But, he says...

RIKHIL BHAVNANI: Despite demonetization being this tremendous negative economic shock, the hardest hit areas in India didn't punish the BJP electorally.

FRAYER: Modi remained popular through demonetization and now through the pandemic by uniting voters around two things, economic optimism - the idea that tough times are fleeting - and Hindu nationalism. In a speech last month in Bihar...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: ...Modi heralded the construction of a grand, Hindu temple in a place called Ayodhya on the ruins of a mosque destroyed in riots. It might seem like an obscure thing to talk about to people facing 46% unemployment in a pandemic. But these stories of an ancient, Hindu civilization rising up, rebuilding, they matter, Bhavnani says, because with them, Modi invites Indians, at a time of crisis, to be part of a larger identity.

BHAVNANI: The larger identity, of course, is Hindu. And individuals in India, individuals in Bihar, will vote on the basis of that larger identity.

FRAYER: And in August, when India was breaking daily records for new coronavirus cases, Modi's approval rating was at 78%.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

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


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