20 Years on, Why the Modi Juggernaut Keeps Rolling in India | Opinion

This Oct. 7 marks 20 years of India's Narendra Modi holding continuous high offices of chief minister and prime minister. He took charge of his native western Indian state of Gujarat on Oct. 7, 2001, and has kept winning election after election at the provincial and national levels ever since. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has never lost a race where he himself was on the ballot for all those years, and he maintains a relatively robust level of popularity to this day.

A recent opinion poll from Morning Consult shows that Modi has recovered ground after a downward slump during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2021, and commands over 70 percent public approval despite entering the eighth year of his prime ministership.

What explains Modi's remarkable longevity and success as a colossus for the past two decades and still counting? There are two broad categories within which the answers lie–policies and politics. His astute policymaking, both domestic and foreign, has kept him one step ahead of his rivals in India's competitive electoral environment. But just being an able administrator or statesman is not enough to sustain voters' unbroken trust over a long period of time. Modi compliments a blitz of policies with a brand of politics that resonates with India's masses and personally connects with them.

One of the hallmarks of Modi's domestic policymaking appeal has been the "Gujarat model" of governance, which he executed as chief minister from October 2001 to May 2014. It stands for high GDP growth rates with an emphasis on policies devoted to advancing agriculture, industry and services, coping with natural disasters and building marquee public works projects to better the state's infrastructure. His much-touted marvel of transforming the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, and the fact that industry-friendly cities like Ahmedabad and Surat were ranked India's "Best Cities for Business" conveyed an impression that something fundamental had shifted in Gujarat due to the Modi effect. His assiduous wooing of Japan, in particular, to come to Gujarat and invest caught attention as a sign of India's future.

Expectation that the Gujarat model would be replicated at an all-India level was a key factor in Modi's first national election win in 2014. His image as a modernizer who chases ambitious targets for economic reform, while softening the harder edges of capitalism with social welfare spending, has persisted over time. During his prime ministership, record inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) into India, sharp jumps in India's "Ease of Doing Business" rankings and landmark reforms such as overhauling the obsolete bankruptcy law and implementing the Goods and Services Tax (GST) have all added to the aura of Modi as a strong-willed leader who seeks deep structural improvements.

In foreign policy too, Modi's legend as a steward of India's rise to eventual great power status has grown over the years. His proactive commercial diplomacy to rev up the "Make in India" late industrialization plan, shedding of old hesitancy in building strategic coalitions with like-minded countries against threats, bold and unorthodox responses to terrorist provocations by Pakistan and territorial aggression by China, cultural outreach to enlist the 32 million-strong Indian diaspora and vast network of personal friendships based on mutual trust with world leaders have impressed Indian voters as indicators of a country that is moving up the ladder in global standings.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Image

Modi's supreme skill has been to articulate these policy achievements and tie them to a unique form of mass politics. He is identified by the general public in India as an upholder of core principles such as incorruptibility, selflessness, national pride and cultural assertiveness. The reason why Modi adopts policy X or policy Y in the domestic or international realm gets refracted through these values that voters cherish. Modi's popular touch with the masses is part of a well-honed feedback loop that burnishes his credentials and accumulates political capital to enact further policy reforms in the future.

Among his peers, Modi is undoubtedly the canniest politician with an acumen for the symbolic pulse or beating heart of India. He has made himself a household name through televised and webcasted town hall events with schoolchildren, where he mentors them on how to deal with stress during exams. The way he publicly emotes with and encourages India's sports athletes when they win, and consoles those who lose, tugs at the average citizen's emotions.

Modi is also among a select few world leaders who does a regular radio show (called Mann Ki Baat) through which he connects with a cross-section of constituencies in Indian society—such as farmers, trade unions, teachers, industrialists, entrepreneurs, environmentalists and artists—covering all regions and ethnicities. These interactive platforms, coupled with his countless in-person public speeches and rallies filled with oratory, keep him in the public eye almost every single day and remind average voters that they have a caring grandfather or a watchman (chowkidar) to lend them a helping hand and lift the country to its rightful place in the world.

While liberal critics paint Modi as a divisive and hate-inciting figure who stands for identity-based Hindu majoritarianism, or as a would-be authoritarian who is endangering liberal democracy, his appeal to India's masses transcends these narrow accusatory labels. The average Indian voter is not driven by religious hatred or secret longing for strongmen. What she finds in Modi is a promise of upward mobility for herself and a sense of redeeming national dignity. Intellectuals and experts can always pick faults with Modi's policies and talk of unfulfilled potential, but on balance, he has not disappointed the collective wisdom of India's intelligent voters.

After 20 years of uninterruptedly being in power, if Modi is still India's top choice for the top job and the most dominant politician in generations, it is not because he has somehow fooled voters repeatedly. The substance of his policies and the style of his politics deserve their due.

Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India. His forthcoming book is Crunch Time: Narendra Modi's National Security Crises. Follow him on Twitter @sreeramchaulia.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.