Modi's Populism Leaves Secular India in Doubt

Daniel Ten Kate
Modi's Populism Leaves Secular India in Doubt

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Most people expected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win a second term. But few thought his victory would be so dominant.

With vote counting underway for an election that spanned six weeks, his Bharatiya Janata Party is on track to win another majority in India. It may even do better than 2014, when it secured the biggest electoral mandate in 30 years.

The question now is where he takes India. When he came to power, Modi made the country more investor friendly and shifted closer to the U.S. He emphasized development issues like jobs, toilets and housing over measures backed by his base that would effectively turn India into a Hindu nation.

But after an initial flurry of reforms, his economic agenda stalled — in part due to an ultimately disastrous move to invalidate 86% of the country's cash. On the campaign trail, Modi's party combined populism with Hindu chest-beating and tough talk against rival and neighbor Pakistan.

While that proved successful, it's worrying for Indians who see the country's secular roots slipping away. And now that Modi's found a winning formula, the nation’s 1.3 billion people are even more dependent on one man.

Global Headlines

Tea leaf reading | Uncertainty over U.S. President Donald Trump’s goals with Beijing — whether he's ramping up threats before ultimately reaching a trade deal, or fundamentally looking to curb China’s rise — has Xi Jinping’s officials struggling on how to respond. “I don’t think there is a clear strategy that’s being conveyed through the system,” says Ether Yin, a partner at Trivium China. As the dispute drags on, economists are increasingly pessimistic about the odds of a full-blown trade war.Trump walkout | Trump stormed out of a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer yesterday, saying he’ll refuse to work with them on bipartisan policies including a $2 trillion infrastructure plan unless they halt their probes into his presidency. Trump said his message to the Democrat leaders was: “Get these phony investigations over with.”Trash talk | Italy’s deputy premier Matteo Salvini is highlighting the appalling state of garbage collection in Rome as he chases what might be his last chance to grab the top job. Salvini wants to win over the Eternal City for his anti-immigration League and has lambasted the city’s mayor from the Five Star Movement of ally-turned-rival Luigi Di Maio. But as John Follain reports, he may fall short of his goal.

Naval frictions | U.S. naval ships have passed through the strait separating Taiwan from the Chinese mainland, highlighting the growing strategic rivalry with Beijing amid the dispute over trade. In another sign of spiraling tensions, China is sending Defense Minister Wei Fenghe to an annual Singapore summit of diplomats and military chiefs next week that will be attended by U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.

Libya stalemate | Strongman Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli has stalled and he “isn’t capable’’ of taking the capital from the UN-backed government, according to Russian special envoy Lev Dengov. Amid risks of a prolonged proxy war as major powers back the rival forces, Russia sees a standoff unless a leader emerges to unite the oil-rich African nation. “If that leader was Haftar, he would already be in Tripoli,’’ Dengov said.

What to Watch

Theresa May’s premiership is hanging by a thread after a high-profile Cabinet minister quit as a growing revolt over Brexit looks set to force the U.K. leader from power. The Pentagon is planning to brief the White House on options to deploy as many as 5,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East amid escalating tensions with Iran.

And finally…Executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google sought to reassure congressional lawmakers yesterday that they’re taking the threat of foreign meddling in the 2020 presidential elections seriously, after being blindsided by Kremlin-backed influence operations on social media during the 2016 campaign. Even so, they warned that U.S. adversaries are developing new interference techniques. “There is no silver bullet,’’ said one Google official.


--With assistance from Rosalind Mathieson and Karl Maier.

To contact the author of this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Hong Kong at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Halpin at

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