Relatives of Covid patients wait to refill cylinders with medical oxygen, in Gurugram on 25 April 2021 | PTI | Representational image
Relatives of Covid patients wait to refill cylinders with medical oxygen in Gurugram (file photo) | PTI
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The Narendra Modi government has just completed two years of its second term. It seems that the past seven years are on one side and the past seven weeks on the other. It is said that in politics, even a week is a long time. What’s unique about these seven weeks is that the approval rating of the central government, which had shattered all popularity records in the C-Voter tracker for the past seven years, has completely collapsed in a matter of days. This week, the number of people dissatisfied with the Modi government has gone way past the number of people satisfied with it.

It’s not that no good has happened in the past two years. The majority of people in our survey hold the abolition of Article 370 as the biggest achievement of Modi 2.0. The Supreme Court’s Ayodhya verdict “healed the historical wound” of a large number of these same people. On the issue of triple talaq, Indians, including from the Muslim community, have supported the government in large numbers. Although the discontent over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA did flare up among India’s minorities, by and large, the majority remained in its favour.

But now, in the case of farmers’ protest, the Centre’s role is being perceived as “anti-farmer” by the same majority. Six years ago, on the Land Acquisition Act as well, 70 per cent of those surveyed had termed the Modi government’s action as “anti-farmer”. Even today, the masses are of the view that the Centre should engage in a conversation with the farmers and find an amicable solution.

On the issue of Chinese aggression in Ladakh, the same majority appears sceptical but it continues to stand with the Modi government. And just look out for the immense patience of this country’s mandate, which doesn’t consider dispatching Covid-19 vaccines and medicines to other countries wrong, nor does it feel that the construction work for the new Parliament building needs to be halted. But the issue where this rather forgiving set of majority loses its patience is the ‘mode of constant campaigning’. It also loses its cool over the ‘Congressionalisation’ of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s politics. This politics of contesting and winning elections at any cost and considering electoral victory as the primary objective is seen as a huge betrayal of people’s trust.


Also read: India’s hope is ebbing. It needs a leader who focuses on health, not victory


Losing public trust, one damage at a time

Top BJP leaders are now over leveraging Prime Minister Modi’s hard-earned trust among the masses for their personal benefits. If you think that the BJP’s main loss is the humiliating defeat it suffered in the West Bengal election, then you don’t understand India’s politics. The BJP and PM Modi have not suffered political setbacks by losing one state election. If the BJP has emerged as the main opposition party in the 294-seat assembly, where it had only 3 seats, while wiping out the Congress and the Left, then it is not a political setback from any angle.

The real loss is the perception among the people that at a time when India needed Modi to address the Covid-19 crisis with single-minded focus, he did not act like the prime minister but just as a leader of his party fully invested in campaigning for the election. The last 364 episodes of PM Modi’s immensely popular monthly radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’ have been completely overshadowed by the events of the past seven weeks. People aren’t looking for positivity, but a show of empathy where politicians don’t tell them that there is no lack of oxygen in the country when people are dying gasping for breath. In this hour of grief, they are searching for that trust where, after carrying the bier of countless family members, relatives, and friends, they are not shown ‘official data’ disputing the overall death toll.

There is no doubt that most people of this country blindly trust PM Modi. So, when the prime minister suddenly announces a note ban with only four hours’ notice, the public quietly begins to stand in queues outside banks from the next day. When he asks people to bang plates to honour frontline Covid-19 warriors, more than 100 million people follow suit. But when they see their prime minister live on TV addressing mammoth election rallies without wearing a mask, after telling them not to be lax until there is a vaccine, somewhere they start believing that perhaps Covid-19 is not a major issue anymore, and put their extra vigilance on hold.

We have all grown up watching signs cautioning us against losing focus on the road — Savdhani Hati, Durghatna Ghati lose focus and there might be an accident. The accident was inevitable in this crisis and happened as predicted. But campaigning for the election did not stop even then. And when the people are in the hospital under stress and facing numerous difficulties, the noises of the same “electoral broadcasting” began to haunt them. By the time the great political strategists could apprehend all this, the damage was already done.


Also read: A bacteria made Indians political. A virus will now extract a political price from Modi


If not on sincerity, certainly short on perceived empathy

It remains unclear whether the Modi government realises that whenever any minister or party leader says on TV that there is no shortage of oxygen anywhere in the country, then the family members of every patient losing breath due to the lack of it is cursing them. Whenever government statistics claim that the number of dead is not as high as is being projected, then those statistics deal a serious blow to the PM and the central government’s image in every household that has lost someone to the coronavirus.

For the past one year, the C-Voter’s team has been interacting with people on the Covid-19 pandemic issue. So far, we have interviewed about two lakh Indians. In this Covid-19 tracker, the number of households that told us about losing someone in their family to Covid-19 is almost seven times more than the official government figure. This shows that the official data published by each state government is nothing but a big bundle of lies. Our survey report clearly shows that at least 1.8 million (18 lakh) Indians have died due to Covid-19. Remember that this is not guesswork or a rough estimate — it is based on first-hand information gathered by speaking to common citizens who have lost a loved one in this pandemic.

It is okay if you are not able to empathise. But outright denial of someone’s death is a sign of grave insensitivity on the part of any government. Our report shows that the public is extremely unhappy with this level of insensitivity. If you can’t share someone’s grief, then at least don’t rub the salt of “official figures” on their wounds.

Today, India doesn’t just need empathy, but a resolve to fight this pandemic with genuine sincerity. The truth is that for the next one year, India needs a singular, coordinated focus on arranging medicines and vaccines. If PM Modi dedicates himself completely to this one agenda, then his popularity can once again scale its peak.

Our survey is clear that about 80 per cent of Indians want to get vaccinated without any fear or confusion. The angry urban India was already vocal, now even rural India is saying that the Modi government has completely failed in its vaccination drive. On the economic front, the Centre’s welfare schemes may have ensured that the poor do not die of hunger, what it really must do now is make sure that no one dies due to a lack of medicines.


Also read: Something has changed for Modi. Perception management isn’t working anymore


When optimism goes for a toss, positivity takes a hit

Any pandemic or natural disaster brings a period of great crisis for any country. In the 70-odd years since Independence, India too has witnessed massive crises. I remember the draconian Emergency era. I am also an eyewitness to the country slowly emerging from the shock of the brutal murders of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. But there was always a sense of optimism that the situation would improve. Today, as India battles the Covid-19 pandemic, the bigger crisis is the end of that long-maintained optimism and hope.

As a journalist, I have been gauging public opinion for the last 25 years. Never in my personal and professional life have I ever seen a phase when this country was not harbouring a sense of hope during a crisis. But for the first time, I see depression and despair everywhere. When we ask people about the coming six months or year, they turn silent. Even in the worst of times, people expressed hope that things would get better. It was this eternal optimism that made people fully stamp their endorsement on the slogan ‘Achhe Din Aane Wale Hain (Good days are coming)’ in 2014.

In the past seven years, people had started listing education and employment as their main concern instead of issues like corruption and inflation during the Congress rule. ‘Employment’ had emerged as the biggest issue in our tracker in December 2015 itself — not because people became unemployed overnight, but because issues like corruption and high inflation seemingly disappeared. That is why the Modi government returned to power in 2019 with a thumping majority despite the issue of unemployment raging across the country — the public was confident that this government was better suited to resolve the unemployment problem. All these seven years, whenever people were asked to name who can resolve their problems, Modi and BJP remained almost constant in majority of replies. Today, about two-thirds of the people are saying they have no hope in any leader or party.

It is true that even in these times, the opposition is unable to do anything substantial. When asked to choose a name other than Modi for the PM post, “Can’t say” is the most popular option. After the results of the West Bengal assembly election, several political analysts and mediapersons dropped the name of Mamata Banerjee for the central role — overlooking the fact that only 3 per cent of Indians favour her for the top job. Arvind Kejriwal is two times more popular while Rahul Gandhi’s popularity ratings are four times that of Mamata Banerjee. Even after adding the ratings of all the opposition leaders of the country, we only reach close to 30 per cent mark. And even when he is down in the dumps, Narendra Modi’s popularity rating is still about 40 per cent.

You may ask if this is the scenario, then where is the political threat that would make Narendra Modi uneasy? If even his worst rating is still much better than everyone else, then what could be so frightening for him — and the country? In fact, all these seven years, whenever we asked people whether their life and that of the country was on the right track, a large number of them always said the country was headed in the right direction even if they were facing several problems in their personal lives.

Today, when asked that same question, about 80 per cent of Indians are saying they do not see anything to be on the right path. The ever-optimist Indians have no hope that things will improve in the near future.

Coronavirus isn’t as frightening. This end of all hopes is.

Yashwant Deshmukh is the founder-director, CVoter International. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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