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es. Corruption-busting reforms have since come thick and fast. Although policies are still bedding down, India now has a bankruptcy regime which shifts the balance of power from tycoons totheircreditors. A nationwide goods-and-services tax will make it harder to dodge levies. A real estate law is forcing transparency in a sector famous for hoarding “black money, and licencesare awarded using transparent auc
tions. These changestothe world’s fastest-growing large economy have elevated India’s position on the global stage. Foreign direct investment hitnearly$40 billion last year,a record. The country attractedmore overseas funds thanChinafor the first time in a decade, according to Dealogic. Modi’s willingness tospend hispolitical capitalbyimplementing long-discussed reforms set him apart. The premier has alsobroadcasthis anti-corruption message in other ways. He has given the quasi-independent Reserve Bank of India cover to push the biggest defaulting companiesinto bankruptcy,including theRuia family’sEssar Steel, and to oust the chief execut
ives of underperforming banks. He is also making a show of holding errant tycoons to account. ABritishcourt has ordered the extradition of spirits baron Vijay Mallya to face fraud charges in India. Meanwhile,authorities are demolishing aplush sea-facing bungalow owned bythe (unrelated)diamond billionaire Nirav Modi, allegedly at the heart of a giant fraud at Punjab National Bank. India
npoliticsremaina messyandexpensive business:the Centre for Media Studies in New Delhi earlier estimatedthe 2019 poll could cost up to $8.4 billion, twice the cost of the previous national ballot. But thepremier still benefits from the perception of a relatively scandal-free government. Accusations about impropriety in the acquisition of Rafale jets from France’s Dassault Aviation haveso farfailed to enrage the public. Similarly, whispers that New Delhi has unfairly supported tycoons like Mukesh Ambani have fallen flat withconsumerswho benefitfromsuper-cheap data through upstart mobile operator Jio, part of his flagship Reliance Industries. MODI’S MISSTEPS The premier has, though,made several missteps that could lead to a voter backlash.The heart of the problemis his attempt tolead in an overly centralised manner,as he did as chief minister in Gujaratstate. Thatapproach hasallowed Modi to keep a stern eye on his cabinet, leaving little room for them to be led astray. However, the failure to trust those around him has also led tobad outcomes. Modi’s decision in 2016 to suddenly ban large banknotes, for example, surprised even his top advisors. Although many Indians still support the so-called demonetisation because of the perceived blow it dealt to rich cash-hoarding crooks, figures from the RBI suggest itachievednothing of the sort. What’s more, it compounded the pain for small-and-medium enterprises when they had to adjust to a unified tax code just months later. A power struggle with theRBIresulted in the departure of twocentral bankgovernors in almost as many years,reinforcinga sense that New Delhi has little respect for India’s institutions. Elsewhere, the financial elite are fed upwithModi’s pursuit of big businessmen which has frightened off private investment necessary to create jobs. Indeed, a shortfall of sustainable employment is a fundamental reason why agricultural workers are up in arms. They account for halfthecountry’sworkforce but just 17 percent ofits economic output. That’s a problem in an election that will have more than100million first-time voters. Finally, the prime minister has alienated fringe voters with an aggressive pursuit ofhisHindu nationalist agenda. They looked past an earliercontroversial BJP campaign pledge to explore building a temple on the site of an old mosque destroyed in anti-Muslim riots. But Modihas takenthings further. A beef ban andhisfailure to speak out promptly against vigilantes attacking and seizing the cattle of Muslim farmers have come to symbolize a growing lack of tolerance. Indeed,it is these self-inflicted wounds that have thrownModi’s position intodoubt, rather than thestrength of opposition partiesthat have joined forces against theBJP. He remains the most popular leader but hisratinghasfallen to 46 percent from 65 percentayear ago, according to an India Today poll of over 12,000 voters across almost one- fifth of India’s parliamentary constituencies. If the BJP has to form a coalition, it may find it has too few allies, or be forced to cede key ministries like home and finance. If the party wins too few votes, Modimight alsobe replaced by Nitin Gadkari,currently transport minister anda favourite of the party’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Even ifoppositioncandidateslike Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party or West Bengal’s fiery Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee appearattractive alternatives, they will have a less firm grip on their cohorts. Modi’sstrongman tactics have been divisive but hehas started to tidy up India’sgraft.Eventhose who dislike the leader admit that, without him, corruption ca
n seep back into the corridors of power.