Some surveys have suggested that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity ratings have shot up, with people approving handling of the pandemic. It’s been a few weeks since these surveys came out last. People’s patience with the economic cost of the lockdown had not begun running out yet and the migrant crisis had not peaked.
In any case, you have to be really gullible to believe Indian surveys. The credibility ratings of our opinion polls are clearly worse than media and politicians put together. Most surveys can’t even get exit polls right.
It would be much more reliable to hear ground reports, or just talk to a diverse set of people around you. Both these things have been made difficult by the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown. Nevertheless, one would do well to believe a fine ground reporter like Jyoti Yadav when she says migrant labourers feel more hurt than angry with Modi.
This sentiment is similar to what one saw, heard and felt about Modi for much of 2018. Around that time, Modi voters and supporters were on a back foot. The sentiment was that while voters didn’t have a choice, Modi had failed to deliver much. Modi and BJP supporters’ best argument was “Aur hai kaun?” — the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. That didn’t say much about Modi’s achievements.
In December 2018, the BJP lost its strongholds Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and Uttar Pradesh was in trouble with the SP-BSP alliance. The strongest indication was Rajasthan, a state Congress tried best to lose with factional fighting but still won. These troubles had started with Gujarat in the winter of 2017, which the BJP has managed to retain by a whisker.
The feeling then, as now, was of having been let down by Modi. To be sure, such sentiments weren’t shared by everyone, but mostly swing voters, who also happened to be non-upper caste. The twin assaults of demonetisation and GST, resulting in huge job losses and farm distress, were showing.
Absolutely no one can say the Balakot airstrikes did not help Modi in the election two months later. In fact, it is plausible that the BJP may not have crossed the 272 majority mark on its own, had it not been for Balakot.
And Modi did a lot else to redress grievances. He put cash in the hands of farmers, because the Congress party’s promise of farm loan waiver had been key to its winning Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. There was upper caste disenchantment that Modi didn’t do anything for the party’s core base, only neglecting it with his pro-poor push. So Modi gave them some reservation benefits.
The Teflon myth
The point of recounting these events is to show that Modi’s ratings aren’t stagnant at 79.8 per cent voteshare — 79.8 per cent because that’s the Hindu population of India. And some liberal commentators and analysts talk about Hindus as if every single Hindu votes for Modi. They will also have you believe that Modi’s god-like infallibility is a permanent thing that undergoes no change. We are often told that Modi is Teflon-coated — nothing sticks on him. Right now on Twitter, you can see numerous liberal commentators bemoan that the same migrant labourers who’ve been left by the Modi government to walk thousands of kilometres home will eventually vote for no one but Modi.
All of that is pure bunkum. Liberals need to come out of their Modiphobia-filled echo chambers and see some objective realities. Even if you believe in surveys, you will see that Modi’s ratings keep rising and falling from time to time. It is not a fixed value. If Modi’s popularity was simply a function of Hindutva, or his ability to have Hindus in a spiritual trance, his ratings even in these doubtful surveys would remain fixed. Or at least they’d never fall (at some point they could exceed 100 per cent too!)
The change in Modi’s popularity ratings itself is proof that the public, even his own voters, do judge and assess his performance on an ongoing basis and are not simply transfixed by his oratory and sermonising.
C for Contrast
At the very least, such analyses of Modi’s relationship with voters should acknowledge that the BJP’s vote voters and swing voters might have different reasons to vote for Modi. These reasons may range from seeing him as the head of the first Hindutva state to simply going along with the hawa — voting for the likely winner.
Far from appreciating such nuance, liberal critics tend to paint all Hindus as Hindutva and Modi voters when in fact the combined NDA voteshare in 2019 was 45 per cent.
Another crucial point such analyses miss is that Modi’s ratings and votes depend heavily on what the opposition has to offer by contrast. This is true for every politician. The 2019 Lok Sabha election saw Modi win more votes because voters were afraid of the thought of Rahul Gandhi as prime minister (rightly or wrongly), than because the people felt Modi was above questioning, or that he had done a great job at the helm.
The public might vote for you even if they dislike you because they might think the opposition is worse. This is often the case in politics, because most voters are not as ideological as politics junkies think. That’s why you often hear the sentiment that all politicians are ‘useless’.
Take, for instance, the migrant labour issue. Labourers have been on the road virtually since the lockdown began in the second-last week of March. But it took Rahul Gandhi over 53 days to do one photo-op with them. What’s worse is that he was the first prominent national leader to do so. The first prominent national leader to be seen with migrant labourers took over 50 days to do so!
Tejashwi Yadav of Bihar was stuck in Delhi till 13 May. Lockdown excuse. Weren’t there any stranded Bihari labourers in Delhi for him to be seen with? Now, when the migrant labourers in Bihar vote for the NDA in the imminent Bihar assembly elections, we will say look how transfixed they are with Modi. He made them walk thousands of miles and they’re still voting for Modi. Must be Hindutva bigots. But if we go down to Bihar and have a chat with them, chances are that they’ll say they don’t have an alternative, they don’t see Tejaswi Yadav or Rahul Gandhi doing a better job. As simple as that.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.