Modi is still popular in Nepal

India's strong man rules a weak country

The Indian Prime Minister has so far been more of a showman than a statesman. That makes him popular in the country. But Corona and the conflict with China show the limits of Narendra Modi's policy.

Something is breaking in India right now.

In recent weeks the earth has shook in the west of the country, swarms of locusts have invaded the north, and dozens of people drowned in floods in the south and east. A week ago, in the state of Kerala, eighteen people were killed when a plane skidded over the runway into a ditch.

And otherwise? In no other country is the number of corona infections rising faster; most recently there were over 50,000 new infections per day. The daily number of deaths is around 1000, and the trend is rising.

India is likely to slide into recession for the first time in forty years. The International Monetary Fund forecasts a decline in gross domestic product of 4.5 percent for 2020. Millions of Indians will slide into poverty.

And then India is also trying to cope with one of the most serious foreign policy crises in recent decades. In mid-June there were bloody clashes on the disputed border with China. Since then, the military and diplomats have been negotiating a solution to a conflict that is becoming increasingly important for the world.

Modes of the Identity Politicians

And what is Prime Minister Narendra Modi doing, the man who has the most power in India and who attracts all the attention? He is happy about the construction of a temple. At the beginning of August, Modi laid the foundation stone for a Hindu temple in the north Indian town of Ayodhya. He promised the "dawn of a new era"; After centuries of waiting, the god Ram finally got a home in his alleged place of birth.

Anyone who thinks the prime minister's prioritization is strange is wrong. Ayodhya showed the method with which Modi has been ruling successfully since 2014. Few politicians know how to use religious and national symbols for their own purposes. A mosque stood at the place where the temple in Ayodhya is being built until 1992. Fanatical Hindus destroyed them. They had been incited by politicians, one of the spokesmen was Narendra Modi. The destruction of the mosque was a defining event for India. It is also closely linked to Modi's rise.

Millions of Indians choose Modi because they see in him the strong man who will lead India to long-awaited greatness. Your faith is unbroken. While governments elsewhere are lurching through the Corona crisis, the Indian Prime Minister has approval ratings of over 70 percent. Indian media write that it is made of Teflon, and everything is rubbing off on him.

Modi's identity politics is popular. But it disguises the fact that the India of the Hindu nationalists is a country that shows strength especially against minorities. For example, when the government withdrew partial autonomy from Jammu and Kashmir, the only state with a Muslim majority, a year ago. Or when she drafted a naturalization law at the end of 2019, from which Muslims are exempt.

The strong man's invulnerability does not bode well for India. Because it hides the fact that Narendra Modi rules a country that is as weak as it has been in a long time.

Demonstrate drive, come on the hell out of it

India's weakness is evident in the corona crisis. The public health system is overloaded and underfunded. When the virus came, the government reacted hastily: In March Modi imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. He did it four hours in advance, at a time when the country with 1.4 billion inhabitants officially only counted just under 600 cases. Two months later, the government was forced to lift restrictions on going out. The hospitals were still not equipped, but the lockdown had triggered a humanitarian crisis. Millions of Indians lost jobs and incomes, and many were dependent on food aid.

In contrast to Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro, Modi always took the corona virus seriously. But the actions of his government seemed to be aimed primarily at demonstrating drive, regardless of loss. That, too, is Modi's method. Many remembered November 2016, when he suddenly withdrew the most common banknotes from circulation and thus plunged the Indian economy into chaos.

The prime minister survives all of this without harm. The opposition is weak and most of the media are uncritical. His government knows how to shift the blame on, for example, on allegedly indisciplined citizens who fout about hygiene measures. Once again, it also points to the Muslims: when a superspreader incident caused a sensation in a Muslim religious center in Delhi in April, representatives of the ruling party spoke of an “Islamic uprising”. But the virus doesn't go away. The government doesn't seem like it has a plan.

China is not Pakistan

India's weakness in the conflict with China is even more evident than in the fight against the virus. It takes place at over 4,000 meters above sea level, in remote Himalayan regions, where the two most populous countries in the world have never been able to agree on a borderline. It is a conflict that is particularly visible on satellite images. The situation is more tense than it has been for decades. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in a clash in the Galwan Valley in mid-June. It was the first fatality since 1975.

Analysts disagree on what caused the escalation. Some believe that the Chinese felt provoked by the construction of a road. Others are convinced that China is acting from a position of strength: The People's Liberation Army is said to have shifted its positions forward in several places, occupying dozens of square kilometers in the process.

The Indian government was unusually meek after the fatal incident. Modi was silent at first, then he promised in a short televised address that the sacrifice of the Indian soldiers would not have been in vain. Since then, India and China have been struggling to disentangle their soldiers' positions on the border.

Modi knows that he can hardly score points in the conflict with China. China is not a tried and tested target for nationalist public opinion; the northern neighbor does not trigger the same upsurges as the intimate enemy Pakistan. After the violence broke out in the Himalayas, Indians burned photos of Chinese President Xi Jinping in front of television cameras. But the protests lacked the passion of anti-Pakistani demonstrations.

Modi also knows that China is overwhelming. Its military expenditures are twice as high as those of India, the Chinese economy is four times as big as the Indian one. At the end of June, India's government banned Tiktok and 58 other Chinese apps. The retaliation was mostly symbolic. The Indian economy is far more dependent on the Chinese economy than the other way around - there is a trade deficit of around 50 billion dollars.

Foreign policy indicator

The geopolitical panorama in South Asia is also uncomfortable for India: In recent years China has drawn practically all of India's neighbors into its sphere of influence, even traditional Indian allies like Nepal. Sri Lanka is in fact a client state of China and - particularly worrying for India - Pakistan is one of the key partners in the Belt and Road initiative.

All of this ensures that the conflict with China becomes the second major yardstick for Modi next to the Corona crisis. His foreign policy will show whether the Prime Minister is willing to leave behind more than piecemeal. So far, there has also been a lot of symbolism: In his first five years in office, Modi undertook almost 100 trips abroad, but a clear strategy was not apparent. The image of his government has suffered because of the anti-Muslim initiatives in recent years.

The once proud non-aligned India is likely to bond more closely with Asian democracies such as Japan and Australia in the coming years. Relations with the USA are also growing closer. At the same time, India cannot afford to upset China too much. The Showman Modi will have to prove that he can master diplomatic balancing acts.

China, Corona, the looming recession: a lot is breaking in India. The prime minister will be tempted to continue to rely on religious and national symbols - as he has long successfully done. But it is increasingly reaching its limits. It would be the moment for him to prove that, in addition to temples, he can also build a political foundation that should last.