NEW DELHI—Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is rallying his nationalist base ahead of the world’s biggest election, which starts on Thursday, but has become tighter than anticipated just months ago, because of falling incomes for farmers and a lack of jobs.
Polls predict Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance will just about squeeze out the parliamentary majority needed to rule, a sharp drop from his commanding mandate five years ago, when he vowed to turn India into an economic and military power.
But his government’s inability to create a million jobs every month for new entrants to the workforce, and ease farmers’ distress over low product prices, has taken the shine off what is still the world’s fastest growing major economy.
From sugar farmers in northern Uttar Pradesh going unpaid for their produce to small businesses in the south shuttered because a new, unifying national tax is too challenging to comply with, discontent has brewed for months, pollsters say.
In December, alarm bells clanged within Modi’s Hindu nationalist fold after he lost three big battleground states in a final test of popularity to the main opposition Congress and its allies, led by Rahul Gandhi.
But a surge in tension with traditional foe Pakistan in February has pushed Modi ahead, as he plays up his image as a defender of national security and paints his rivals as weak-kneed, even questioning their patriotism at times.
“People were very unhappy, angry that Modi makes tall promises and doesn’t deliver,” said Shiv Chandra Rai, an Uber driver in the commercial capital of Mumbai, who said his unemployed brothers faced difficulties making ends meet in their home village in Uttar Pradesh.
“Everyone said there are no jobs, everywhere farmers are struggling. But on this issue of Pakistan we are confused now. Some people feel we have to vote for Modi on this issue, it is a national problem.”
Modi ordered air strikes on a suspected camp of militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad in Pakistan after it claimed responsibility for a deadly car bombing in Indian Kashmir, in the first such raid since the neighbors’ last war in 1971.
Pakistan sent warplanes into India the next day and the two engaged in a dogfight. Later, both nuclear-armed foes threatened each other with missile strikes, before Western powers, led by the United States, pulled them back.
But Modi claimed victory, vowing more similar action if militant attacks continue in Kashmir. He attacked critics for questioning the efficacy of the strikes and the risks of raising tension with Pakistan.
“Why do these people get so disturbed when India acts strongly against the forces of terror?” he asked at a rally this week in western India, referring to opposition leaders.
“Is their hatred for Modi so great they can’t even unite when it comes to national security?” he said to tens of thousands of cheering supporters wearing saffron headbands.
The Congress, led by Gandhi, and his charismatic sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra who took up a party post in January, is trying to steer the campaign back to Modi’s broken promises on the economy.
Gandhi has pledged a monthly payment of 6,000 rupees (US$87) to India’s poorest families, benefiting 250 million of a population of 1.3 billion, in what he called a final assault on poverty.
“The BJP’s campaign is largely around nationalism, national security and this is echoed in their manifesto,” said Sanjay Kumar, director of think tank the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi.
“Congress is trying to pitch in the election with regard to farm distress, rural crisis, unemployment.”
Nearly 900 million people are eligible to vote in an election spread over seven phases into next month to allow security forces and officials to ensure a free and fair ballot.
Voters will travel by buses, trains, boats to about a million polling stations. Votes will be counted on May 23 and results are expected the same day.
Gandhi, as Congress leader, had attempted to forge a grand alliance with a clutch of powerful regional parties fighting the elections, so as to avoid the splintering of votes.
But the unwillingness of other Congress officials to give in to the demands of the smaller parties and the vaulting ambition of key regional figures frustrated his efforts.
Still the Congress said Modi represented a threat to every opposition group by pursuing its vision of a Hindu-first India, stoking fear among its Muslim minority. The BJP denies such bias.
Modi’s tactics were borrowed from the playbook of U.S. President Donald Trump, said Sam Pitroda, an adviser to Gandhi.
“The strategy was, there is [an] enemy at the border, in that case it was Mexican, and enemy, also, as people in the country, immigrants. Very similar, Modi says there is an enemy at the border…Anything you say, immediately everyone attacks you.”