Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS
Narendra Modi. Picture: REUTERS

It is a terrible feeling to discover that your country is full of strangers. For some in India, the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, with a majority that India hadn’t seen in three decades, was that moment. Everyone knew there was discontent with the status quo; everyone knew that Modi was doing well, better than anyone had expected before he became a candidate — but to win an unprecedented majority? It meant that far more Indians than imaginable were willing to trust a leader with so disquieting a record.

Since then, I have seen that feeling of shock replicated elsewhere, and often. In Britain, for example, in the summer of 2016, as the country voted narrowly for Brexit. And again, in the US that autumn.

After a while, you refuse to believe what happened. It was special circumstances that led to this shock result, you’re told. Voters who should have known better were carried away with anger and enthusiasm, responding to a government floundering in corruption, or to years of feeling left out and ignored by mainstream parties, or to economic policies that didn’t sufficiently take their interests into account. Voters are sensible, people say; when they see how their choices aren’t working out as hoped, they will come around. Of course they will, that’s how democracy works.

In India, Narendra Modi’s premiership was certainly not working out as hoped. The jobs he had promised to create weren’t there. Rural distress was spreading, as the government’s tight control on food prices kept farmers from making the sort of profits they wanted. The prime minister took controversial, indefensible decisions such as the overnight ban on 86% of India’s cash. And he lost several crucial midterm provincial elections, some by unusually large margins. Yes, he remained popular, but politics seemed to be snapping back to normal.

And then came May 23 2019, when — instead of voting out Modi, or chastening him by reducing his majority, Indian voters instead rewarded him with an even greater majority. His party’s share of the vote jumped by more than 6%. Instead of seeing his term as a disappointment, his supporters retained their allegiance — and gained converts. Losing once to the populist might be bad, but you just have to look at India to realise twice is infinitely worse.

Liberals in India weren’t alone in being shocked in the past fortnight. A few days before Modi’s victory was announced, Australia’s incumbent right-wing government — after a shambolic few years — were returned to office, defying opinion polls and surprising pretty much everybody. A predicted swing against them didn’t materialise to any substantive degree, and voters in places such as Queensland opted in larger than expected numbers for extremist parties — a choice that ultimately benefited the incumbents.

These are warning signs for the rest of the world. Do you believe that rational Brexit voters looking at the mess of the past two years will obviously change their minds? Think again. They may not see it with the eyes you do. The Brexit Party just won the biggest share of the UK vote in the European Parliament elections. Do you think the Democratic “blue wave” in the midterms of 2018 means Trump’s chances of winning re-election are low? Don’t bet on it.

If voters can make the wrong choice once, they can do it again — even in the face of objective evidence. Especially if their first choice has been misdiagnosed. If you imagine it was a protest, or a response to specific economic circumstances, then listen more closely to what your fellow citizens are saying — even if makes you uncomfortable, because you don’t want to believe that’s what they want and believe.

In India, too many liberals came to the conclusion that Modi won in 2014 just because he promised jobs, or because the previous government had been a mess. It made his victory more palatable, more normal. It made our country more recognisable. But it was wrong. In fact, Modi promised pride. As his followers saw it, Modi promised to restore the greatness that more than a thousand years of foreign rule had sapped from India, culminating in the government of the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.

He implied that the state would cease decades-old preferential treatment to Indians from historically disadvantaged or minority communities. His opponents sought to combat him on his economic platform, or on corruption allegations – but his voters chose not to listen to their arguments. Those issues simply weren’t what appealed to them in the first place. They liked his vision of the country, and so were resolutely deaf to arguments about anything else.

It turns out that, if you want to fight nationalist populists like Modi, you can’t treat them like regular politicians. Nor can you assume away unpalatable truths about your fellow voters. You can’t change their votes by appealing to their pocketbooks, or by big economic promises, or by excoriating a populist government’s record, because they will always trust such leaders more than they will you. You can’t change how they vote until you change their minds about what sort of country they want to live in. Only then can you defeat Modi — or Trump, or Brexit, or Le Pen.

• Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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