During his first campaign for national office in 2014, Narendra Modi made a memorable pledge. If elected as prime minister, he would launch a crusade to repatriate untaxed wealth stashed abroad by unscrupulous businesspeople. The recovered bounty, Modi promised, would be worth as much as $25,000 for every Indian, a colossal sum.
About a year after Modi won, with no sign of the windfall, a local broadcaster asked the Indian leader's election mastermind and closest political ally, Amit Shah, what had happened. "Look, this is a jumla," said Shah, now India's interior minister. The obscure word—found in Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati, the official language of Gujarat state, Modi and Shah's home turf—literally means sentence or clause. But as Modi's star has grown brighter, a different connotation has gained prominence: a false promise or gross exaggeration.
"This was just a way of campaigning," Shah said, insisting that the public understood that no individual would ever receive such a massive cash injection. He might as well have added, "What, you didn't get it?"
As Modi begins his eighth year in power, Shah's poker-faced defense seems all the more telling. The jumla phenomenon offers a guide to understanding not just how India's reigning populist campaigns but also how he governs—and why he keeps winning despite a series of major policy failures. The truth or falsity of his claims hardly seems to matter. What wins the day, and continues to win Modi elections, is his apparent intent, transmitted to a young, desperate population via carefully crafted jumlas.
The best example came in late 2016, when Modi unveiled one of his most dramatic moves: demonetization, which scrapped high-denomination currency notes and rendered the vast majority of money in circulation illegal with immediate effect. India's economy runs mostly on cash transactions, and stunned Indians struggled to get their hands on the newly issued currency, creating chaos at banks. The government said it intended to target tax evaders and counterfeiters. The idea was that those holding untaxed wealth, known in India as black money, wouldn't want to be identified when they went in to exchange their stockpiles of old currency for new notes.
Modi said demonetization would "break the grip of corruption and black money" while ordinary citizens would only have to put up with "temporary hardships." That didn't turn out to be true. Official data shows that the policy didn't achieve its goal of exposing criminals, as almost all the old currency was returned. Local reports later revealed that India's central bankers had told Modi that the measure wouldn't work. Much of the fallout landed on India's poorest citizens. People lost their jobs as businesses went under or were forced to scale back their operations. For Modi's opponents, demonetization looked like a classic jumla: a bold promise that proved economically ruinous for many Indians.
Yet Modi's popularity only increased. Not long after he upended the cash economy, his Bharatiya Janata Party won by a landslide in elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and most electorally significant state. Today, even as concerns grow about the systematic oppression of India's minorities and the smothering of dissent, Modi's success at the polls has continued, cementing his position as the godhead of Indian politics. When he ran for reelection in 2019, he defied predictions and increased his parliamentary majority.
Modi has also relied on jumlas under crisis. At the outset of the coronavirus pandemic last March, he plunged India into a sudden and all-encompassing nationwide lockdown. The decision pushed millions of daily-wage laborers into the streets and migrant workers onto packed buses, robbed of their already shaky livelihoods. It also helped spread the virus nationwide as the urban poor returned to the countryside. Modi said India would effectively shut down for 21 days, during which it would defeat the virus. As was clear to many experts at the time, these were more empty words.
Why do these lofty promises continue to work for Modi? The prime minister has used jumlas to portray himself as on the side of the so-called honest Indian left behind as the economy opened up and the country grew its own small army of billionaires. Demonetization may have failed to achieve its policy objectives, but it worked to show young, poor Indians that the prime minister intended to go after corrupt elites. Hundreds of millions of others have found themselves locked out of a system where basic resources, from health care to education, remain in short supply.
In Modi's telling, these inequities are the fault of those who governed before him. In an interview with a local newspaper during his reelection campaign, he talked about the "Khan Market gang"—a reference to one of Delhi's toniest markets, long a haunt of the richest and best connected. "Modi's image has not been created by the Khan Market gang, or Lutyens Delhi, but 45 years of his toil … good or bad," the prime minister said, referring to the upscale, British-built central Delhi enclave where the market is located.
Never mind that a policy fails, that what Modi says is clearly false—at least he's trying. The messaging is clear: Modi is a doer, working to fix a system that served his predecessors rather than the public. In his public appearances and on social media, where he is far and away the most influential politician in India, Modi presents himself as India's pradhan sevak, or prime servant in Hindi—a play on pradhan mantri, which means prime minister. The focus isn't on whether or not he delivers but on who he is, an idea that he hammers home with consummate skill. In early 2017, when someone jokingly tweeted that Modi "works for me," the Indian leader replied by saying, "Absolutely. Happy to be the Pradhan Sevak for each and every Indian."
A splintered and ineffective opposition at the national level has only helped Modi's cause, enabling him to hone his image even as his policies fail. Meanwhile, pressure on the media to toe the government line has allowed Modi and his proxies to continue making tall claims that go unchallenged.
India is still grappling with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. While its caseload hasn't spiraled to the levels feared by some experts, recent spikes in certain regions have raised concerns about a new wave. The unplanned nature of last year's lockdown exacted a heavy economic toll. But politically, it seems to have worked for Modi, who again came across as a doer, taking decisive action in the face of an unprecedented threat. The prime minister's approval ratings have dipped only marginally over the last year, confirming his skill at the art of the jumla.
Nikhil Kumar is a writer and journalist based in New Delhi.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement