Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP National President Amit Shah waves at media as he arrives at the party office for Central Election Committee (CEC) meeting for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. (Source: PTI)

Modi Has Turned India's Elections Into a U.S.-Style Presidential Race

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi is everywhere these days.

As India prepares to hold the world’s biggest election next month, his face beams down from government websites, billboards advertising welfare programs, full-page newspaper ads and TV shows that live-broadcast his speeches.

Modi Has Turned India's Elections Into a U.S.-Style Presidential Race

His Bharatiya Janata Party is also raising funds by selling "NaMo Again" T-shirts, mugs and wristbands through the Narendra Modi smartphone app. After announcing airstrikes on Pakistan, party officials said the country was "safe and secure" under his "strong and decisive" leadership.

The singular focus on one man is an attempt to replicate the party’s 2014 election win, when the BJP ran a U.S. presidential-style campaign projecting Modi as the savior to India’s problems. That contrasts with the opposition Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi, which did not formally declare a prime ministerial candidate five years ago and is unlikely to do so this time.

However, it’s unclear whether a presidential push will yield the same success this time. Modi’s popularity has fallen as he failed to deliver on job-creation pledges, and he now needs to compete for crucial seats in parts of India dominated by regional leaders and local issues. Still, Modi’s BJP is predicted to win the most seats and some analysts believe his authorization of airstrikes in response to a deadly attack in Kashmir could boost his chances.

Modi Has Turned India's Elections Into a U.S.-Style Presidential Race

"For the BJP, pushing this as a presidential-style election makes good sense, because it plays to the party’s perceived strength by amplifying Modi’s personality," says Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. However, "Congress’s recent surge and its consequent boon for Gandhi means that the BJP’s focus on presidential-style campaigns and personalities runs the risk of backfiring."

Leaderless Coalition

In 2014, the BJP won the biggest electoral mandate in 30 years by focusing on their candidate. His administration is now pushing a narrative that compares Modi’s authoritative leadership with a supposedly leaderless rival coalition consumed by in-fighting.

To the opposition, crafting alliances with powerful regional leaders is more central to the election than elevating Gandhi -- who recently promoted his well-known sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, to an important political role. They are portraying Modi as an autocrat whose centralized leadership style has left India worse off.

Modi Has Turned India's Elections Into a U.S.-Style Presidential Race

The Congress party managed to oust the BJP in three state elections in December. Gandhi has gained momentum -- and struck some electoral alliances -- even as Modi has lost allies from his coalition.

Still, Modi remains India’s most popular politician, but he has slid in the polls. In a Feb. 4 India Today-Karvy Insights poll, 46 percent of respondents said Modi was best suited to be the next prime minister, compared to 34 percent for Gandhi.

Modi Has Turned India's Elections Into a U.S.-Style Presidential Race

"It will be a presidential contest," BJP lawmaker G.V.L. Narasimha Rao said in an interview. "The key issue in 2019 will be, ‘Modi vs who?’ Do we want Modi, or do we want an alternative to Modi?"

Centralized Power

Having campaigned like a president rather than a prime minister, Modi is also widely perceived to have ruled like one. He’s centralized power within both the federal government and the BJP organization, said professor Katharine Adeney, director of the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute.

"Modi will be similarly prominent in the 2019 election," Adeney said. "But his star has faded as he has failed to deliver on his economic promises."

Modi Has Turned India's Elections Into a U.S.-Style Presidential Race

Another risk is the BJP is unlikely to retain seats it won by sweeping north India in 2014, forcing the party to look to the east, "where politics is more regionalized and contests are won or lost on state-specific issues," according to Milan Vaishnav, South Asia director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Tactically, the BJP will not be able to run a fully presidential race."

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