Is NDA-II heading the same way as UPA-II? The latest Mood of the Nation survey findings published by India Today invite us to think of this tempting but false equivalence. As a nation-wide popular movement confronts the Narendra Modi-led BJP government floundering in its second term in office, it is natural to think of the disastrous second term of UPA-II under Manmohan Singh, especially after the anti-corruption movement. It is a misleading comparison though.
India Today’s poll is a good place to look for evidence. Its six-monthly ‘Mood of the Nation’ (MOTN) poll is the oldest data series of its kind in India. (The other series, the one I prefer more, the CSDS-Lokniti series on State of the Nation Survey has been interrupted again). Although its method and quality have varied over the years, I still trust India Today to report what its pollsters found. That is why I always wait for and carefully read its findings. This latest round was carried out during the last 10 days of 2019. As always, the pollsters spoke to a small but representative sample of about 12,000-plus voters across 19 states. Remember: a less-than-perfect survey is an infinitely superior source of information than drawing room gossip.
Decline in BJP popularity?
There are many indicators in MOTN survey to support the idea of a decline in the BJP’s popularity. The headline forecast shows a drop of 50 seats compared to the NDA’s tally in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It would look worse if we imagine a grand alliance of the opposition, including the Shiv Sena. The poll finds a loss of 4 percentage points in the NDA vote share, from 45 per cent in the Lok Sabha elections to 41 per cent now. Add this to the outcomes of assembly elections following the Lok Sabha polls and you have a trend line of a consistent decline in the BJP’s fortunes.
I would, however, not rush into such a happy conclusion. For one thing, I never take seat forecasts very seriously, especially when the Lok Sabha election is some years away. Voters don’t quite know their mind. And the pollsters don’t know what the nature of alliance arithmetic would eventually look like. Besides, one should not read too much into a small drop after an extraordinary peak as in the 2019 elections. In any case, the poll shows that the BJP’s loss is not the gain of its principal national opponent, the Congress. In this respect, ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta’s reading of this poll is bang on.
Despite a minor drop, Prime Minister Modi’s approval rating continues to be high at 68 per cent. He continues to be way ahead of his competitors (53 per cent prefer him over 13 per cent for Rahul Gandhi) in the PM race. He can afford to shed a few points as the opposition has no half-credible face to take him on. The supreme leader’s rating is more important to assess the strength of an authoritarian regime than any projected vote share for his party.
Split on economy
The poll’s indications on India’s economy are more significant, though not as robust as I had expected. I wish the poll had asked more pointed and sharp questions on the economy.
At 32 per cent, unemployment is the top-most anxiety of the people. It has been so since the MOTN survey held in August 2016. Nothing surprising here, given the rather alarming state of unemployment in the country, especially among the educated youth. If anything, the reality of joblessness finds a mild expression in the mirror of this poll.
Farm crisis may have slipped from the headlines, but continues to feature among top concerns. While Modi did win farmers’ votes, he has not been able to wash away the impression that the farmers’ condition has deteriorated under his regime. At the same time, food inflation is beginning to hurt the consumer, though this anxiety is yet to peak.
The bad-old UPA is now seen in a fairer light for its handling of the economy. All in all, the population is almost equally divided into three: the 29 per cent believers who see no reasons to worry, the 28 per cent sceptics who fear that the economy is stagnating or regressing, and the 32 per cent agnostics who say it is growing but at a slower pace. It’s bad news for the Modi and Amit Shah regime, but not as bad as the reality of the economy warrants. The public opinion has still not crossed the tipping point.
Are majoritarian policies working?
To my mind, the most significant findings of this round of MOTN survey are about the majoritarian policies followed by the Modi government since the Lok Sabha elections.
With Amit Shah as its mascot, the NDA-II has pursued an aggressive agenda of polarisation through Kashmir, Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the nation-wide NRC. Although these policies are disastrous for our long-term national interest and India’s international standing, I feared that this would bring short-term political dividends to the BJP.
The survey shows that the BJP may have overplayed its hand. The move to scrap Article 370 gets popular approval, but not as high as the BJP may have hoped for. Similarly, those who support the CAA outnumbered those who are opposed (41 per cent to 26 per cent) to it. The same is true of the NRC (49 per cent to 26 per cent). But this is nowhere close to the polarisation the BJP had hoped to achieve.
A majority of the people (52 per cent) agree that minorities are feeling insecure. More significantly, 53 per cent agree that minorities are justified in feeling insecure. The most damning news for the regime is that more people feel that CAA-NRC is a ploy to divert peoples’ attention than otherwise (43 per cent to 32 per cent). Remember, this survey was completed before the JNU episode that may have eroded the regime’s legitimacy even further. Clearly, at least some Modi’s supporters have begun to think that he is committing excesses in this second regime. This sentiment brings authoritarian regimes down.
Not the beginning of the end
But this is not the beginning of the decline and fall of Narendra Modi. For one thing, the starting point of NDA victory in 2019 was much higher than the modest victory that the UPA managed in 2009. Besides, the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR movement is not the darling of the media that the Anna Hazare movement was. Above all, we must hold our horses, because the character of the Modi regime is radically different from that of the Manmohan Singh government. Whatever happens to this regime, it will never quietly preside over its own decimation as UPA-II did.
If the Singh government was characterised by policy paralysis, this one is afflicted by hyper-activism, sans a roadmap. We cannot compare this regime with the previous one because it is led by not one but two consummate political players unrestrained by norms, conventions or compunction. Their exit route cannot possibly be like the UPA’s tame surrender in 2014.
We are dealing with political animals who would turn a setback into an opportunity, who would invent crises to dodge and distract, and who would not stop at anything to retain power. Indira Gandhi’s shock defeat in 1977 is the closest parallel that we can think of. Perhaps, we need to look beyond India, to our neighbours who have fought against authoritarian regimes, to visualise an exit route for the Modi-Shah regime. No wonder, Hum Dekhenge has suddenly acquired a new currency among protesters.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.