Modi defies gravity

It's been a rough few months for India, even by the standards of 2020. Its economy was slowing even before COVID became a household word. A controversial citizenship law provoked deadly unrest in India's largest cities.

Then, when coronavirus infections began to spike in early spring, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a lockdown that gave 1.3 billion Indians just four hours to find a place to shelter in place for 21 days. The resulting chaos inflicted even more damage on India's economy. Amid the chaos, massive crowds of people on the move across the country probably accelerated the spread of infection.


Unemployment has hit record highs, and Modi has begun the gradual process of ending the lockdown, despite evidence that COVID infections and deaths continue to rise.

And Modi, now serving his second term, has an approval rating in the high 70s, and more than 90% of people reportedly support his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

How is that possible? We asked Akhil Bery, an analyst who covers India at Eurasia Group, GZERO Media's parent company. We know Modi is an exceptionally gifted politician, but how is he defying political gravity in this remarkable way?

Akhil offers a few theories…

Modi is decisive. In a diverse country where decisive political action is prized, Modi was able to "re-establish his position as a decisive leader who is doing what it takes to keep the nation healthy and safe," said Bery, by persuading voters that, however hasty, his bold actions saved millions of lives. His controversial policies, particularly on questions of religion and citizenship, are highly popular with large majorities in India, even if critics inside and outside the country say he has deliberately targeted Muslims for discrimination to play to a Hindu nationalist voting base.

He has also stoked national pride by talking very tough on Pakistan, India's rival, and by cutting a formidable figure alongside other world leaders. When he addresses major international gatherings like the UN General Assembly and the World Economic Forum in Hindi rather than in English, Indians see a leader who is advancing India's independence and culture on the world stage.

The opposition is barely visible. The Congress Party, now India's main opposition party at the national level, lacks strong leadership. Party leader Rahul Gandhi is still widely considered "an unserious politician who comes from an elite ruling family," Bery told us. "In my opinion, until Congress changes its leadership, it will always play second fiddle to Modi on a national level. Even if there is anger [at Modi] – there is no leader to tap into that anger and hold Modi accountable."

Modi's party has mastered new media. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, according to Bery, developed a social media game and grassroots level organization with highly disciplined messaging. "No other party has been able to organize at the level or use the image of their leaders as effectively." That helps the prime minister sell his version of events efficiently to hundreds of millions of people.

Storm clouds. All that said, over the next two years, India will hold elections in 11 of its 28 states. Modi may calculate that his current popularity owes much more to policies that favor his Hindu nationalist voter base than to the economic reforms of his first term or any potential plans that promote national unity.

Some of the states holding elections have a history of communal violence between Hindus and Muslims. Add the risk of lingering post-COVID unemployment to Modi's history of pitting Hindus against Muslims, and India may be headed for even more turmoil.

Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick joins That Made All the Difference podcast to discuss how his career as a surgeon influenced his work as an educator, administrator and champion of underserved communities, and why he believes we may be on the cusp of the next "golden generation."

Listen to the latest podcast now.

It's been a bad week at the office for President Trump. Not only have coronavirus cases in the US been soaring, but The New York Times' bombshell report alleging that Russia paid bounties to the Taliban to kill US troops in Afghanistan has continued to make headlines. While details about the extent of the Russian bounty program — and how long it's been going on for — remain murky, President Trump now finds himself in a massive bind on this issue.

Here are three key questions to consider.

More Show less

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Yes, still in the middle of coronavirus, but thought I'd give you a couple of my thoughts on Russia. Part of the world that I cut my teeth on and as a political scientist, way back in the eighties and nineties. And now Putin, is a president for life, or at least he gets to be president until 2036, gets another couple of terms. The constitutional amendments that he reluctantly allowed to be voted on across Russia, passed easily, some 76% approval. And so now both in China and in Russia, term limits get left behind all for the good of the people, of course. So that they can have the leaders that they truly deserve. Yes, I'm being a little sarcastic here. It's sad to see. It's sad to see that the Americans won the Cold War in part, not just because we had a stronger economy and a stronger military, but actually because our ideas were better.

More Show less

When hundreds of thousands of protesters in Ethiopia brought sweeping change to their government in 2018, many of them were blaring the music of one man: a popular young activist named Hachalu Hundessa, who sang songs calling for the liberation and empowerment of the Oromo, the country's largest ethnic group.

Earlier this week, the 34-year old Hundessa was gunned down in the country's capital, Addis Ababa.

More Show less

Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden, shares his perspective from Europe (specifically, from Croatia at the moment):

What's been the European reaction to the allegations in the US that Russia has been paying Taliban for attacking US forces?

Well, I think the reaction has been fairly limited, and I think one reason for that is that I doubt very much that European governments or relevant agencies have been briefed on this particular piece of intelligence. And until it's sorted out, what is the reality behind it? I don't think you will see very much of a European reaction.

More Show less