Narendra Modi, who upended India’s politics by combining a message of economic development with everyman appeal, will have his controversial brand of populist nationalism tested when Indians go to the weeks-long polls between April and May.

Modi delivered a thumping majority for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 on a platform of right-wing economics and anti-elitism, but has been accused of amplifying domestic tensions between Hindus and Muslims for political gain.

“The recent rush with which the government has tried to get the [anti-] triple talaq bill … through the parliament is a case in point,” said Prabhash Ranjan, an assistant professor at South Asian University in New Delhi, referring to the Islamic practice of talaq, which allows a man to end his marriage simply by saying the Arabic word for divorce to his wife three times.

“It is quite unprecedented that the government is trying to put people in jail for a civil wrong and that, too, of just one religion. While the government justifies this in the name of gender justice, to most observers it looks like a case of polarising the society on religious lines just before the elections.”

A former activist with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a hardline Hindu-nationalist volunteer organisation, the prime minister has played down his militant past and called for unity between Hindus and Muslims. But critics say he has offered tacit support for sectarianism by failing to adequately condemn vigilante violence committed by Hindus against the minority Muslim population.

Religious hate crimes, committed mostly by Hindus against Muslims, soared from single digits before Modi’s election to 74 in 2017, according to journalism non-profit group IndiaSpend.

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In 2005, Modi – who was then chief minister of Gujarat state – was denied entry to the United States due to suspicions he had encouraged sectarian riots in 2002 that killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. An investigative team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court ultimately cleared Modi of complicity in the violence.

Swaran Singh, a professor of diplomacy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said divisive issues like caste and class were likely to shape the upcoming election campaign.

Modi is known for being a tech-savvy politician. He makes best use of social and mass media, connecting directly to citizens
Swaran Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University

“This will see higher doses of money, muscle and religion dominating election strategies and hustings and in micro-targeting of constituencies and voters,” he said.

Wielding the humble backstory that he grew up selling tea with his father, Modi has carefully honed an image as a man of the people.

“Prime Minister Modi is known for being a tech-savvy politician. He makes best use of social and mass media, connecting directly to citizens,” Singh said. “With his 39.4 million Twitter followers it seems difficult for any opposition politician to match that mark. Modi’s party, the BJP, today claims to be world’s largest cadre-based party with 100 million sworn members and is flush with resources to push its campaign unlike any other.”

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Ahead of his showdown with the Indian National Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, son of late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Modi has drawn once more on the anti-elitist rhetoric that propelled his rise.

“Mr Modi often targets the Gandhis for being elitists who do not understand the pain of common people because of their privileged background,” Ranjan said. “Mr Modi’s party and their unabashed cheerleaders also target intellectuals who question the government as elites, trying to falsely project them as anti-nationals.”

Although he remains popular, Modi faces a tougher road to victory than in 2014, when public disillusionment with slowing economic growth and numerous corruption scandals gave India its first non-coalition government in three decades.

The BJP landslide reduced the dynastic Congress, the party led by four generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the dominant political force since the country’s independence in 1947, to its weakest position ever in the Lok Sabha.

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Last month, the BJP was beaten in state elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, ending the party’s years-long winning streak at the regional level. Recent opinion polls raise the possibility of a hung parliament after the April-May election, which is expected to be fought over issues such as rural deprivation, unemployment, corruption and economic reform.

“Mr Modi’s popularity is surely not the same as it was a few years back,” Ranjan said. “Although, he is still the most popular politician in India today. In other words, there are limits to how much populism alone can deliver in a country as vast and as diverse as India. The rural and agrarian crisis and the failure to generate jobs that he had promised has made some people angry, especially in rural and semi-urban India, which, undoubtedly, has dented his populist appeal.”

Nevertheless, most experts agree Modi is still in the box seat.

“So far, the last five years of Prime Minister Modi have not produced any clear challenger to his visibility either inside or outside his rolling coalition and none as yet appears even on the horizon to match up to Modi’s energy,” Singh said.

Paul Kenny, the author of Populism and Patronage: Why Populists Win Elections in India, Asia, and Beyond, said Modi goes into the election as the clear favourite.

“He remains immensely more popular than the leader of the Indian National Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, so whatever the achievements or failings of the BJP in government, I think it’s likely they’ll get a second term,” he said.