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'Strongman' image may not win votes for Narendra Modi

Good intentions are ubiquitous in politics, wrote American economist Bryan Caplan. What is scarce, however, are "accurate beliefs". Elections are always a good occasion to test such beliefs.

Is India's Narendra Modi really a strongman leader in the mould of Turkey's President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and Russia's leader Vladimir Putin? Will he succeed in making the mammoth 2019 election a presidential referendum on his performance?

Are people really unhappy that Mr Modi did not carry out the kind of radical economic reforms that many thought he would? Is he a clear favourite to secure a second term in power, thanks to the lack of a charismatic rival? Is good economics bad politics in the world's largest democracy? Does rising nationalism threaten democracy?

In his engaging new book, Democracy On The Road, Ruchir Sharma grapples with these questions and more. The global investor, author and New York Times columnist has made 27 elections trips to India since 1998 during which, he says, he must have "driven a distance nearly equal to a lap around Earth". He's been to more than half of India's 29 states and to the 10 most populous and politically important states more than once. I caught up with him on his recent trip to India.

Opinion polls in India have sometimes shown a public desire for a strong leader, unshackled from the compulsions of parliamentary democracy. However, Mr Sharma says, the electoral realities of India actually "rebel" against strongman leaders.

"In the end, Indians root for the underdog," he told me. "The democratic impulse is strong. If the leader becomes arrogant, he is pulled down by the people. Most importantly, it is difficult for one leader to dominate for long in this extraordinarily diverse country."

So diverse that a leading multinational firm divides 29 Indian states into a further 14 sub-regions because "consumer tastes, habits and languages are far more fragmented in India". The real strength of Indian democracy, says Mr Sharma, lies in its diversity.

He believes in spite of Mr Modi projecting himself as a strongman, India is "really no country for strongmen".

"The 2019 elections is being cast as a contest between Modi and the rest, a referendum on India's appetite for strongman rule and commitment to democracy. More likely, the election will shape up as a series of state contests. The result will depend on whether the opposition parties can work together to unseat the BJP."

There is ample evidence to support Mr Sharma's claim. Regional parties now win more than 160 seats - nearly a third of the seats - in parliament, up from 35 seats in the early phase after Independence. "This important new phenomenon has converted our general elections into a combination of state-level regional or sub-national elections," says psephologist Prannoy Roy.

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