India's prime minister Narendra Modi suffers embarrassing setback on eve of UK visit

Narendra Modi will receive a rock-star welcome in the UK this week, but the Indian PM could be in trouble at home  after his party made him the focal point of a regional election – and lost

Indian voters decisively rejected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party in a crucial regional election billed as a referendum on his leadership, held amid growing criticism of his government and on the eve of a high-profile visit to the UK. 

Mr Modi personally addressed more than 30 rallies in the populous and impoverished state of Bihar during the bitterly fought campaign, but his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was routed by a “Grand Alliance” of opponents, winning just 53 seats out of a possible 243.

The result means that as he prepares for an enthusiastic welcome in Britain this week – including an unprecedented sell-out event at Wembley Stadium on Friday – Mr Modi will be smarting from the defeat on home soil, which comes as his administration also faces mounting accusations of fomenting intolerance. 

Critics claim the BJP campaign in the key electoral battleground of Bihar tried to stir up religious tensions, with a polarising strategy designed to ensure the support of the Hindu majority. “People have completely rejected efforts to divide them,” Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar – who led the coalition of rival parties – told reporters after the results were announced. 

Mr Kumar has been credited with turning around what was once considered one of India’s most backward states, boosting its infrastructure and cleaning up its reputation for corrupt politics. 

Instead of relying on local BJP leaders to fight the election on local issues, Mr Modi, a sharply dressed and highly skilled orator, took personal control of the campaign in the hope that his reputation and charisma would seal victory. 

Mr Modi’s leadership style combines early morning yoga and a vegetarian diet with a massive Twitter following and a self-confidence that has won him friends in high places across the world. 

He promised jobs and growth for Bihar’s 100-million-strong population, mirroring the platform that swept him to power on a wave of euphoria in last year’s general election and recalling his successes in the western state of Gujarat, which he ruled before becoming Prime Minister. 

But 18 months into the job, Mr Modi is facing complaints that his domestic reform agenda has stalled and that he cannot bring about change on the ground. 

“People elect chief ministers who perform and deliver for the common person; but he didn’t have an economic success story to offer,” says Rajiv Kumar, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

Some of Mr Modi’s proposed measures, which include a complete overhaul of the tax system and widespread changes to land laws, have been frustrated by the upper house of parliament, where the BJP does not hold a majority.

A win in Bihar would have redressed the balance by allocating his party more seats. 

“We will be analysing all the aspects of the electoral result and what went wrong,” the BJP’s spokesperson, Gopal Krishna Agarwal, told the news channel NDTV. “On the development agenda that we wanted to project, we lost in the perception battle.”

The defeat in Bihar was the BJP’s biggest electoral setback since coming to power, after losing in the capital Delhi earlier this year. The election was played out against the backdrop of a fierce debate about rising intolerance in India, a country that prides itself on unifying diverse religious and linguistic groups under a secular democratic umbrella. 

Since the BJP came to power, hardline Hindu groups with close links to ministers and senior party members, have become emboldened to claim India as a Hindu nation. They have stepped up campaigns against intermarriage with Muslims, sought to rewrite school textbooks to reflect a Hindu-nationalist view and have become increasingly vocal in calling for a nationwide ban on the slaughter of cows, an animal considered holy by many Hindus and which is already protected in many states. 

The issue of cow slaughter burst into the spotlight again last month after the murder by a Hindu mob of a Muslim man who was suspected of eating beef. Members of Mr Modi’s party have repeatedly made inflammatory comments against Muslims; Mr Modi himself has attracted criticism for failing to rein them in or distance himself from their views. 

Dozens of leading Indian writers, including the Booker-Prize winner Arundhati Roy, have recently returned prestigious national awards in protest against attacks on religious minorities and intellectuals. 

And there have also been interventions from more unlikely corners: India’s central bank governor Raghuram Rajan and the nation’s most beloved Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan have both spoken out on the issue.

“There is extreme intolerance in India,” Mr Khan said in an interview with the India Today news channel. “Religious intolerance and not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot.” As the debate rages in India, Mr Modi can look forward to leaving his troubles behind later this week when he lands in the UK, where he will be courted by politicians and business leaders eager to improve ties and boost trade with an emerging economic power. 

Mr Modi, who rose from humble beginnings as a tea-seller, has tried hard to propel India into a more assertive role on the international stage, visiting almost 30 countries and calling for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for his nation of 1.2 billion people. 

He is due to address tens of thousands of members of the Indian diaspora at the Wembley Stadium event in what is likely to be a repeat of the rock-star reception he received at Madison Square Gardens in New York last year.

But some say his priorities are wrong. “He should be cancelling his jaunts abroad and get the domestic economy moving – and be seen to be doing that,” said Rajiv Kumar of the Centre for Policy Research.

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