Narendra Modi, the risky dream of "New India"

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"Mo-di! Mo-di! Says the crowd. At the twilight of one of the hottest days of the year, the clamor rises from the crowded Ramlila terrain in the heart of Delhi. As for the arrival on stage of a rock star, tens of thousands of lights, coming from mobile phones, oscillate in chorus in the crowd. The saffron flags emblazoned with the lotus flower, emblem of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), panic. It is one of the biggest and last rallies of the election campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a second term in the gigantic legislative elections that ends this Sunday, May 19.

Over six weeks, 900 million voters have been called to the polls to renew the 543 seats in the lower house of the Indian Parliament. The campaign was long, dominated by the violent duel between Narendra Modi and the dynasty center-left party led by Rahul Gandhi, the great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru. It hardened in the home stretch, with the candidates drawing their last ammo. The victory of the Prime Minister, a 68-year-old man with a now white beard, remains in the fore. But it seems more tenuous, weakened by a lackluster economic balance sheet, rising social tensions and the loss last year of three key BJP states in regional elections.

Right nationalist uninhibited

According to Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of a biography on the prime minister, "people have always worshiped or hated Modi," but "a decline of his charisma" would be at work. The saffron party gives the change and deploys all its communication skills to orchestrate a festive gathering. From the crowd heated by a cricket star and a popular singer, to the thousands of meal trays that will be distributed free of charge, the sympathizers vibrate to the rhythm of the unifying slogan: "Long live our mother India! "

Alone at his desk on the imposing podium, Modi, all dressed in white, seeks above all, in this election, the popular adhesion to his personality. In 2014, driven by its economic promises, the champion of Hindu nationalism had triumphed with a historic majority. With his personal ascension and his successes at the head of Gujarat (West), he presented himself as an example of meritocracy and messiah of development. Whoever calls himself "NaMo", a modern version of the Modi brand, has reinvented the image of an uninhibited nationalist right. "Why not give him a chance? Decided the people, who perceived it as a leader able to prosper the democracy of 1.3 billion inhabitants.

Religious tensions

It was to forget that Modi is also a pure product of the extreme right movement of the RSS (Corps of National Volunteers), ideological matrix of the BJP, which was banned in India after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by one of his members. Once elected, the autocratic Modi was faithful to the project of the RSS. Rewriting textbooks or renaming Muslim-sounding cities, he attempted to erect Hindu culture into state politics, striking a blow to a multi-faith identity inherited from independence. In five years, under its governance, India has changed.

Christophe Jaffrelot, research director at the CNRS and author of Modi India, national-populism and ethnic democracy, speaks today of an "ethnic democracy", based on a fundamental inequality between the ethnic majority and the minorities. Religious tensions against these minorities have been exacerbated. Muslims, who represent 14% of the population, were targeted by a wave of lynchings for their cattle trade, the cow being sacred among Hindus. The organization Human Rights Watch warns of the increase in these attacks perpetrated by informal Hindu militias. "The violence, which also targets our Christian minority (3% of the population, Ed), is not only the work of small factions, but the result of an ideology based on Hindu supremacy," said Father Savarimuthu Sabkar , spokesman of the Archdiocese of Delhi. These ultra-nationalist forces are also attacking the cultural and academic communities, NGOs and the media, who defend the values ​​of "secularism" in the Constitution. "The current government is particularly intolerant of those who disagree with it," said author and analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakura.

selfies

But Modi's ability to galvanize crowds is intact. That night, the magic operates, by the miracle of his deep and powerful voice, his incantatory Hindi and his accusing diatribes. He who refuses to be interviewed at press conferences is comfortable when he is on board. Not once, in 45 minutes of monologue, he will not offer a smile. This is his message: a rigorous, focused and uncorrupted leader. To the question "Why are you voting Modi? "The response of the sympathizers is tirelessly the same:" Because it is a great leader. "

Tinged with populism, his speech takes up the themes of identity in the heart of his campaign. Sailing on fear and anger, he poses as a savior against the threat of terrorism, revived this winter after a bomb attack in Indian Kashmir that killed 40 paramilitaries and pushed India and Pakistan to the brink of war. . Promises him the advent of a "New India" and prides himself on being the "chowkidar" (the guardian) of the interests of the nation. "New India will go to terrorist homes and kill them," he says. Then he throws three times: "Shall we go to their houses to kill them? The crowd roars with pleasure. Some take the opportunity to take selfies by contorting to seize the prime minister in the background.

The last Gandhi

At 48, Rahul Gandhi, the eternal heir apprentice, seems to have gained experience and respondent.

© SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP

It is above all the criticism of the Nehru-Gandhi family that nourishes its oratory pugnacity. It is looting their dynastic privileges, the endemic corruption and paralysis that plagued India when they were in power. In 2014, the strategy worked, in a country really tired of Congress. Why not today again? But at 48, Rahul Gandhi, the eternal heir apprentice, seems to have gained experience and respondent. Some observers believe that if Modi feels so threatened by Rahul Gandhi, it is that it is losing momentum.

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Not a single word, during the meeting, on the situation of indebted farmers or the problem of employment, the heart of electoral expectations. India still enjoys a very strong annual growth, of the order of 6 to 7%, and foreign investments have jumped during the mandate of Modi. But his reforms, presented as major, have disappointed. The introduction of a single VAT, for example, has not offered the expected simplification. Censored to remove corruption, the surprise operation of demonetizing more than 80% of cash in circulation in 2016 has held back an economy dominated by the informal sector. A painful shock for rural areas and small traders. And then, in 2014, Modi committed to create 10 million jobs. This year, his government has tried to put away statistics that have leaked: the unemployment rate would have risen to 6.1% in 2017-2018, the unheard of for 45 years. The reality is hard to pin down because of the lack of reliable numbers. But the degradation is spectacular. Economist Amit Basole said it could "spawn social unrest" in a country with the youngest labor force in the world.

A $ 7 billion campaign

To redress the bar, the BJP has the financial means of aggressive marketing, in a campaign that promises to be one of the most expensive on the planet, according to the Delhi Center for Media Studies. This organization estimates that costs could reach up to $ 7 billion, up from $ 5 billion in 2014. The BJP receives the largest number of contributions from major groups. A connivance with the business world which is regularly denounced by Rahul Gandhi. The latter accuses the Prime Minister of having favored, as part of the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets in France, "his friend Anil Ambani," Dassault's main partner. Not a day is happening in India without the opposition rebelling the "Rafale scandal".

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The propaganda of the BJP is in full swing. It relies on social networks, beset by misinformation and fake news. Long before other Indian politicians, Narendra Modi understood the impact of a high-tech populism that goes through its omnipresence on the Web and by slogans. In 2003, a year after the anti-Muslim pogroms that had bloodied his state and killed over a thousand people, he imposed the economic success story of the "vibrant Gujarat". We had to dare. From the "butcher of Gujarat", as some called him, he will become a "charismatic leader". Today, he is fighting again against a negative image. "Modi, the leader of the disunity", has titled the latest international edition of the magazine Time. With a question: "Will the world's largest democracy survive another five years under the leadership of Narendra Modi? "

Proximity

The political strategist, meanwhile, focuses even more on the influence of his personality. He tries to soften his image, facing a Rahul Gandhi who, if he does not always have much to offer, is more accessible and more "human". In a televised presentation, Modi appeared as a smiling man, boasting simple tastes. This great loner plays the card of closeness to the people and humility. Of course, we already knew the legendary anecdote, reiterated at leisure, of the little tea seller when, as a child, he helped his father after school. "I belong to a poor caste," insists Modi, trying to convince voters that he is one of them when he ends his rally in the dark on Delhi. Once again, they may believe it.

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