In India Today’s Mood of The Nation Survey, carried out in July 2019, 60 per cent respondents said that the Narendra Modi-led NDA government’s economic performance was better than that of the UPA. Note that it was better only by contrast; the question was not whether it was good enough by itself. More interestingly, a significant 45 per cent respondents said their economic status had improved since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014.
These results are hard to reconcile with the reality of an economy slowing down. Even before the elections, we knew, thanks to a leaked report, that unemployment was at a historic high in India. There’s nobody who can say that demonetisation and a poorly implemented GST did not hurt the economy. What, then, explains Modi’s popularity, his Teflon coating, in the face of these harsh economic realities?
There are several factors at play. One is low inflation, which is Modi’s only real concern when it comes to the economy. Growth and job creation are being sacrificed to keep inflation low, so that people don’t complain of “mehengai (expenses)”, of daily necessities becoming unaffordable.
Another is Modi’s welfare schemes. Indians have for far too long been used to a mai-baap state. If the government is keeping inflation low and building me a house and a toilet and giving me Rs 6,000 in cash every year just for having a farm, what else do I want? Try explaining to people that even private sector job creation depends on the government’s policies.
Then there is the general faith in Modi, which is de-linked to any issues. It is not Hindutva or the economy or surgical strikes – it’s just that people like Modi, in the way they like a film star. Modi can do no wrong. Thirty-five per cent respondents said Modi’s ‘strong leader’ image was the reason why he won the 2019 election. Balakot was a separate point, which 16 per cent felt was the reason.
Presumption of truth
All such surveys and myriad political analyses of Modi’s popularity are based on the presumption that the Indian voter has all the relevant facts to make up her mind in favour of Modi. What this presumption misses is the role of fake news. In any analysis of Modi’s popularity or Indian elections, you will hear people talk of a weak opposition, a co-opted media, Hindutva, low inflation, welfare schemes and so on. You won’t hear of people talking about fake news and misinformation spread through WhatsApp and other social media, often beyond our sight.
What makes people give a thumbs up to Modi’s economic performance when the economy is actually in a bad state? For many liberals the answer is Hindutva. But what if people don’t think the economy is actually slowing down? What if people think the economy is doing well. This comes through in the India Today Mood Of The Nation Survey. Sixty-six per cent respondents said Nirmala Sitharaman’s first Budget was good enough to help make India a $5-trillion economy in the next five years. That’s a thumbs up to a Budget so bad that the finance minister has since gone back on many of its key proposals.
The economic slowdown has reached such worrying proportions that even data fudging and the government’s denial is not hiding it. Modi won’t utter a word on the economic slowdown because why admit a problem when it’s easier to convince people that there is no problem?
It’s not that people are not experiencing unemployment — survey after survey since demonetisation has shown unemployment as the top concern for the public. In the Mood of the Nation Survey, 35 per cent thought it was the top concern. The missing link is that the people don’t blame the Modi government for unemployment. Modi can do no wrong.
During the elections, you could find people saying Modi was taking the nation to great heights, even as the opposite was happening to the economy. In east Uttar Pradesh, a villager told The Indian Express: “India is more respected in the world now. From 13th, it has come to fourth spot. Give Modi five more years and we will climb to number one.” Number 4 in what exactly? Never mind.
Blame everyone but Modi
As the economic slowdown becomes harder to hide, as even the doubtful GDP says we are growing at only 5 per cent, shareable social media ‘creatives’ have been screaming “Reality Check”. Not just India, the entire world is suffering an economic slowdown, they say. It’s the US-China trade war that’s the reason. In other words, why blame demonetisation or GST or Modi? They point out the low growth rate of European countries. Good luck explaining to the masses why that’s not comparable, or how demonetisation killed the India growth story even while the global economy was on a high. “While the world is headed for recession, critics only find PM Modi to blame,” one creative says.
We all get such messages on WhatsApp. We don’t realise the scale of this WhatsApp propaganda. There are 400 million Indians using WhatsApp and almost no one’s WhatsApp is free of political content arriving as if on its own.
One such ‘forward’ doing the rounds says:
“Often heard nowadays that ‘Indian Economy is struggling’. Sit back & dispassionately think ‘is the economy really struggling or are business models struggling? Some food for thought:
1) Car sales are going down… but Ola / Uber are rising.
2) Restaurants are going empty… but home delivery is rising.
3) Tuition classes are not getting students but online studying is rising
4) Traders are struggling but online market sites and reference-based direct selling are breaking all records in sales.
5) Old commission-based businesses are snivelling… but online services, at low cost, are finding takers.
6) Cell phone bills have reduced & internet penetration is increasing.
7) Stable (read ‘Govt Jobs’) are dwindling but ‘Start up’ jobs offering equity & Flexi work time are expanding.
8) Jobs seekers are reducing but job creaters are on the rise.
Working 40 hrs a week for 40 years is trend of past. Working for few years and spending quality time in contributing to society is the trend…
The bitter truth is what we are experiencing is a transition phase and any transition is painful for the ‘well set’… ‘The masters of the past’.
It’s challenging for those whose business models are based on ancient data….
Sunil Gavaskar style 35 not out cannot win one-day matches today. We need a Rohit/Virat style today.
It’s a mystery for those who have never looked beyond traditional methods or have assiduously resisted change of any kind.
Economy is not struggling…
Business is Changing.
CHANGING CONSTANTLY..! [sic]”
Content is king, distribution is god
This is typical. Blame the world. Blame the people. Blame businesses for not adapting. Blame the changing environment. Blame everyone except the government. The scale and influence of such propaganda is so huge that you can meet people in chai shops and trains who will repeat it word for word. WhatsApp propaganda makes every Modi voter speak like a BJP spokesperson.
Fact-checking, leaving WhatsApp groups or reeling from such posts is not going to fight this propaganda. Fighting it will need distribution power — someone who has the ability to create and manage millions of WhatsApp groups.
Views are personal.