GZERO Media logo

Modi defies gravity

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.

Meet Ian Martin, an English Professor from Glasgow who is now head of Communications for Eni's International Resources. Approaching his work in the same way he used to hold his lectures, Ian is dedicated to listening and making people around him comfortable. Having working in both Milan and London, Ian utilizes his ability to communicate in different languages and cultures to prepare Eni's global messaging strategy. "Communication is a transfer of humanity," he says, and his job is as much centered around people as it as around language.

Watch Ian's human approach to communications on the most recent episode of Faces of Eni.

How to capture the essence of this incredible, terrible year in a few short words and without using profanity? It's not easy.

Thankfully, the dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com has released its list of most heavily searched words of 2020, and they tell the story of an historic year in US politics and the life of our planet. Here's a sample.

The top word, unsurprisingly, was "Pandemic," a disease outbreak that covers a wide area and afflicts lots of people. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit every region of the world, triggering a public health, economic, and political emergency on a geographic scale our planet has never experienced. Differing responses to that problem defined the politics (and geopolitics) of 2020.

More Show less

While recent news from Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca on the efficacy of their respective COVID vaccines is encouraging, it has also given rise to bidding wars between wealthy countries trying to secure the largest supply of the new drugs for their citizens. Meanwhile, many governments in emerging market economies, where healthcare infrastructure is generally weaker, are worried they'll be kicked to the back of the line in the global distribution process. Indeed, history bears out their concerns: while a lifesaving HIV treatment hit shelves in the West in the mid-1990s, for example, it took years to become widely in Africa, which saw some of the worst HIV outbreaks in the world. But here's the catch: even if wealthy countries manage to obtain large supplies of vaccines to immunize their populations, the interconnected nature of the global economy means that no one will really be out of the woods until we all are. Here's a snapshot of how many COVID vaccines select countries have already purchased.

Afghanistan's small breakthrough: For months, disagreements over a range of political issues have hamstrung the intra-Afghan peace talks brokered by the Trump administration that aim to bridge the years-long conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But this week, a significant breakthrough was made on the principles and procedures governing the talks, that, experts say, will help push negotiations to the next phase. One key advance is agreement on the official name of the Afghan government, an issue that stalled talks earlier this year. Still, progress is fragile. Taliban violence and efforts to seize territory have only increased since the militants and the US reached a deal in February on a blueprint for an American troop withdrawal. And the Trump administration says it aims to pull out all but 2,500 US troops by mid-January, whether the Taliban have kept their end of the deal or not. What's more, while this week's development puts the parties one step closer to an eventual power-sharing agreement, it's unclear whether the incoming Biden administration will even honor the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban.

More Show less

Two weeks ago, Russia secured a deal to build a naval base in Sudan, its first new military facility in Africa since the end of the Cold War. The accord is a major milestone in Moscow's wider push to regain influence, and income, on a continent where the Kremlin was once a major player.

But with the ideological and military contests of the Cold War long over, what is Moscow doing in Africa today?

More Show less
Reasons for Hope: COVID and the Coming Year. Watch on Friday. Dec 4 2020 12 noon - 1 pm ET

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's Newsletter: Signal