Narendra Modi irks long-time backers to grow base before 2019 polls
For three generations, Kumar Jain’s family of gold traders in India’s financial capital has been among the staunchest supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party. Now they’re thinking of looking elsewhere.
Modi in March imposed a 1% excise duty on jewellery, prompting protests from thousands of manufacturers and artisans across India. Jain says the extra burden is dealing a financial blow and will cost Modi the support of most of the country’s roughly 3.5 million jewellers, designers and artisans.
“Not just us, but the entire industry is upset with the government,” said Jain, the owner of U.T. Zaveri jewellery store in Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar, the biggest bullion market in India. “If the government doesn’t support us, how can we support them?”
Small retailers like Jain who once formed the base of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party are feeling abandoned as he moves to consolidate support among rural voters ahead of the next national election in 2019. Besides the levy on jewellers, he has also removed barriers for foreign companies like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to get a bigger slice of India’s $600 billion retail market.
At the same time, Modi announced plans to double farmer income in five years with investments in irrigation, food processing and rural roads. The political calculation is simple: Villagers make up 70% of India’s 1.3 billion people, and Modi needs their support to stay in power.
“It’s a strategic shift even at the risk of estranging their traditional support base,” said A.K. Verma, director at the Centre for the Study of Society and Politics. “The BJP is concentrating on 2019 — they don’t want to take any chance.”
Prior to the 2014 national election, Modi struck a different chord. He criticized the previous Congress party-led government for moving to open multi-brand retail to international investors, saying in 2012 that it was “giving a new definition of democracy — of the foreigners, by the foreigners and for the foreigners.”
Yet the vote redrew India’s political map. With inflation soaring and citizens seeking change after 10 years of Congress rule, Modi’s BJP won the biggest majority in India’s lower house in three decades. In doing so, it attracted a range of new voters and expanded its reach into parts of India where it previously had little support.