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Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his party are seizing on a publicity boost from hosting the G20 summit last weekend to kick off a busy campaign season that will culminate with national polls early next year.
The summit — in which Modi secured a unanimous statement that brought together Russia, China and the west, a series of economic deals and a flurry of photo-ops — provided the Bharatiya Janata party with an unparalleled platform to champion India’s aspirations for global leadership and promote its prime minister as a foreign policy power player.
Buoyed by the global spotlight, the party is now seeking to translate that momentum into electoral success, as Modi faces a unified and reinvigorated opposition in polls that will be fought largely on domestic and economic issues such as inflation.
India is entering a busy political season, with five state polls due in the coming months and a national vote in early 2024, when Modi’s BJP will seek a third term in power.
For India’s middle class, the summit has shown that “globally, we now have a standing”, said political commentator Neerja Chowdhury. To them, the elevation of India, which this year overtook China as the world’s most populous country and whose economy is among the world’s fastest-growing, “will make a difference”.
No sooner had the G20 concluded on Sunday than the BJP began strategising. Modi and top BJP leaders convened a planning meeting on Wednesday on November polls in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the ruling party is expected to face a strong challenge from its arch-rival Indian National Congress.
The government has also called a surprise special parliamentary session next week, when in addition to debating several pieces of legislation it is due to celebrate the parliament’s 75-year history.
BJP leaders have in recent days promoted their G20 achievements in ways analysts said left little doubt about their upcoming pitch to voters.
The summit “has been presented as a personal achievement of Mr Modi”, said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, the author of a biography about the prime minister. “That is what will be played up by the BJP: that Modi has greatly enhanced India’s prestige abroad and that Mr Modi . . . rubs shoulders with the world’s most important people.”
Since assuming the G20 presidency this year, India has held about 60 events in cities around the country, which the government said helped “democratise” an otherwise routine diplomatic event by spreading accompanying interest — and investment — to more remote areas.
The opposition has argued that this strategy had more to do with exploiting a global platform to boost the personal image of the prime minister. Ahead of the event, New Delhi and other host cities were blanketed with images of Modi that often resembled campaign material.
India had been due to host the G20 last year but swapped with intended 2023 host Indonesia in what critics speculated was a move meant to time its presidency with the run-up to next year’s vote.
Jairam Ramesh, a spokesperson for the opposition Congress, accused the ruling party of electioneering around the summit. “This is being done to divert people’s attention from important issues,” he wrote last month on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.
Modi’s government even stoked controversy over whether it would seek to officially rename the country ahead of the polls after the prime minister opened the summit on Saturday sitting behind a sign that read “Bharat”, a Hindi-language moniker for India long favoured by the party’s Hindu nationalist supporters.
Rajnath Singh, the defence minister, invoked that divisive debate on Monday when he said Modi “successfully demonstrated Bharat’s prowess” at the G20.
The BJP has shrugged off criticism of its conduct. Amit Shah, the home minister and Modi’s de facto second-in-command, told an interviewer this year: “If the G20 summit is organised successfully . . . should the opposition get [the credit]? Obviously the credit will go to Modi.”
While most analysts expect the BJP will form India’s next government, the party’s path to retaining power is not assured.
Dozens of opposition parties including Congress in July formed an alliance — known by its acronym INDIA — that has focused attack lines on issues such as unemployment and Modi’s alleged links with scandal-hit tycoon Gautam Adani.
It is also negotiating a plan to unify behind individual candidates against the BJP in general election constituencies. If the opposition manages to reach a deal, analysts said, this strategy could chip away enough seats to end Modi’s parliamentary majority, forcing him into a coalition that would curb his power.
But Modi remains very popular: a poll by US research group Morning Consult released this week found 76 per cent of respondents in India approved of his premiership.
Santosh Desai, a branding specialist and political commentator, said while he thought the G20 would have limited impact in state elections, at a national level it would “certainly bolster [Modi’s] chances”.
“It becomes a fairly strong kind of a factor even for those who might be undecided to lean in favour of someone who is strong and stable, rather than a question mark on the other side,” he said.